Woman’s Work

… (a) is never done, proverbially, and (b) consists of cooking, cleaning and home-making (oh, and child-bearing), traditionally. Therefore it is always interesting, and sometimes quite astonishing, to come across a historical figure who worked in a role which, according to the patriarchal scheme of things, was totally unsuitable for a woman.

In respect of offering non-traditional roles to women, Italy was an oddly enlightened place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – though of course the woman had to be fairly exceptional to have an exception made for her.

Take Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia (1646–84), the illegitimate daughter of Giambattista Cornaro Piscopia, Procurator of St Mark’s, and his peasant mistress (they did eventually marry, in 1654).

Palazzo Loredan on the Grand Canal; Elena Cornaro Piscopia’s birth is commemorated with a plaque (below).

She was born in Palazzo Loredan on the Grand Canal in Venice (now, sadly, municipal offices), and seems to have been something of a prodigy, mastering Latin, Greek, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic. She was also highly proficient in music (she played several instruments and composed), rhetoric and philosophy, and studied astronomy and physics.

All this was impressive enough – and apparently her father believed her talents brought additional lustre (were any needed) to the Cornaro family name. But she took her education a step further: instead of marrying, in 1665 she became a Benedictine oblate (though she never took vows as a nun), and via her tutor, petitioned the university of Padua to allow her to take a degree in theology.

The bishop of Padua stepped in and refused; but she was given permission to study for a degree in philosophy, and received her laurea and mozetta (the olive wreath and short ermine cloak of a graduate) after a disputation in Latin on some obscure passages in Aristotle in the cathedral of Padua on 25 June 1678. (This seems to have been a social as well as an academic occasion, with many Venetian nobles in the audience.)

Portrait of Elena Cornaro Piscopia wearing the mozetta of a university graduate, holding a book and pointing to a celestial globe.

Sadly, Elena died in July 1684 (of tuberculosis, but, it is claimed, worn out by her studies and her ascetic way of life), and is buried in the church of Santa Giustina in Padua.

The basilica of Santa Giustina in Padua, seen from the Prato della Valle.

Memorial statue of Elena Cornaro Piscopia in the university of Padua.

A generation later, Laura Maria Caterina Bassi (1711-78) of Bologna became the first female doctor of philosophy in Italy, and the first female university teacher. (The bishop of Bologna, unlike his counterpart in Padua, was very impressed by her, and later, as Pope Benedict XIV, became an influential patron.)

Laura Bassi, wearing the mozetta and crowned with the laurea.

She began to study and teach Newtonian physics, and in 1738 – even more controversially – she married Giuseppe Veratti, physician and assistant professor at the university, with whom she had twelve children (though only five survived infancy). (One can only assume that the nineteenth-century gentlemen who opposed women’s education on the medical ground that it would render them sterile had not heard of her.)

Eventually, in 1776, two years before her death, Bassi herself became professor of physics at the university, with her husband acting as her assistant (as he had done to her predecessor), and they worked together formally (as they had for many years informally) on the question of the medicinal uses of electricity. (Galvani attended their demonstrations.)

A portrait of Bassi with some of her equipment in the Palazzo Poggi in Bologna.

Bassi’s career was particularly unusual because she was deeply involved in experimental work – the regular courses taught at the university tended to be theoretical, and the lectures she gave at home, surrounded by her equipment, filled an important gap for students.

The third of the learned Italian ladies I want to mention got her hands really dirty. Anna Morandi Manzolini (1716-74) was an anatomist, who also created wax models as teaching tools for surgeons.

Engraving of Anna Morandi Manzolini.

She too worked at/for the university of Bologna, and was encouraged by Benedict XIV. In 1736, she married Giovanni Manzolini, the son of a local shoemaker, whom she had known since childhood: both of them had trained as artists, and in 1740, to improve his skills as a figure painter, Giovanni joined the Bologna studio of Ercole Lelli, who had just been given a commission by Pope Benedict to create wax models for the Anatomy Museum of the Bologna Academy of Sciences.

Pope Benedict XIV, by Pierre Subleyras.

Six years later, he set up on his own, believing that Lelli had not given him enough credit for his work, and Anna (who had had six children in the first five years of their marriage) became his work partner both in dissection and in model-making. After Giovanni’s death from tuberculosis in 1755, Anna’s life was not easy (she appealed to the pope for assistance in supporting her family), but she continued the business, and was made lecturer in anatomy at the university in 1756.

She became famous, and her wax models were eagerly acquired both as teaching tools and (apparently) as conversation pieces. Joseph II and Catherine the Great patronised her, and Catherine made her a member of the Russian Imperial Academy of Sciences and Arts. (I have also read that she was elected as a foreign member of the Royal Society, but I haven’t been able to verify this.)

Perhaps her most remarkable works are two portrait busts, of herself and her husband. In an elaborate pink silk gown (no lab coats here!), with pearls, dangly earrings and a diamond ring, she gazes out at the viewer, while on the desk in front of her sits a human head with part of the bone removed to reveal the brain, which, the forceps in her left hand suggest, she is in the process of dissecting.

Anna Morandi Manzolini, self-portrait in the Palazzo Poggi, Bologna.

Next to her, Giovanni, in an elaborate cravat which would have got dirty had he leaned in upon his work (interestingly, some photos seem to show that the elaborate ruffles on his shirt-sleeves are bloodstained) is working with a scalpel on a piece of soft tissue.

Giovanni Manzolini, his coat sleeves pulled own over his shirt …

In another photo, the rather dirty shirt ruffles can be seen, suggesting that somebody has been adjusting Giovanni’s clothing for him.

There are many images of Anna’s work online, especially on the website of the Palazzo Poggi Museum, though they are not necessarily for the squeamish. There is a recent biography, which I must get hold of, here.  An article in the Memorie della Accademia delle Scienzie del Isituto di Bologna of 1857 narrates her life, and reproduces the epitaph on her tomb in the church of San Procolo in Bologna (note that she was ‘summoned’ to the Royal Academy in London but was unwilling to go).

The interior of the church of San Procolo, Bologna.

And this engraving was produced after her death:

Minerva, goddess of wisdom, supports the image of the late anatomist in this etching by Domenico Cunego (1724/5– 1803).

It’s not that there were not female intellectuals in other European countries during the same period – Marianne Paulze (Mme Lavoisier), Caroline Herschel, Émilie du Châtelet, Sophie Germain … but the remarkable thing about these three women is that they were able to participate in the formal university structure from which women in Britain were excluded for almost another century.


This entry was posted in Biography, History, Italy, Museums and Galleries, Natural history, Venice and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Woman’s Work

  1. Pingback: Plant of the Month: January 2019 | Professor Hedgehog's Journal

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.