THE LADY CORNARO by Jane Howard Guernsey

THE LADY CORNARO

Pride and Prodigy of Venice
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KIRKUS REVIEW

A praiseworthy if perfunctory biography of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the “first woman in the world” to receive a university doctorate. Elena Cornaro was not only beautiful, brilliant, and of good family, but chaste, compassionate, generous and so dedicated to her Roman Catholic religious beliefs that she wore a monk’s habit under her elaborate silk gowns. Born in 1646, by the time she was 11 years old, she had learned Latin, Greek, French, and Spanish, and was studying art, music, philosophy, and history. She went on to become proficient in four more languages as well as mathematics, astronomy, and physics. She had also taken vows of chastity that put her in conflict with her father, who wanted her to make an advantageous marriage. They compromised: she would remain a virgin, but give up her dream of entering a convent. He continued to support her studies and frequently showed off her erudition at parties and gatherings of distinguished scholars. Elena’s academic reputation grew until she was recommended as a candidate for a degree at the University of Padua, passing her final exam when she was 30 years old. However, she had punished her health with “extreme penance,” wearing hair shirts and starving herself (a condition called “holy anorexia”), and died at 38. After many funeral honors, she was buried in a chapel in Padua, now called the Cornaro Chapel. In the US, she is venerated by a stained glass window at Vassar College. Unfortunately, very few of Elena’s own writings survived, so freelance writer and editor Guernsey tries to give dimension to Elena’s life by describing her extended family, the tutors and notables who influenced her, as well as depicting life in Venice in the late 17th century. Limited introduction to a woman who is a heroine of Vassar graduates and other women scholars. (55 b&w illustrations)

Pub Date: Sept. 15th, 1999
ISBN: 1-883551-44-7
Page count: 276pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15th, 1999