Italy: proposal for statue of first woman to get PhD sparks debate

A proposal to insert a statue of the first woman in the world to earn a PhD among the 78 dedicated to notable male figures on a prominent square in northern Italy has stirred controversy.

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia received her doctorate degree in philosophy from the University of Padua in 1678. But she was not included when Padua officials devised a project in the late 18th century to erect statues in Prato della Valle – the largest square in Italy – dedicated to illustrious historical figures who were either from the city or had links to it.

Originally there were 88 statues adorning the 90m2 elliptical square, all paying tribute to men, including the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, the sculptor Antonio Canova, and several popes. But 10 statues dedicated to Venetian doges were destroyed by Napoleon’s army after it conquered the republic of Venice; eight were later replaced by obelisks, while two of the pedestals remained empty.

Although a statue honouring Piscopia already exists at the University of Padua, two local councillors, Simone Pillitteri and Margherita Colonnello, proposed celebrating her with another on one of the empty pedestals at Prato della Valle. “Perhaps it is not so well known that the figures to whom the stone effigies are dedicated are all, without exception, men,” the pair wrote in a motion presented to the city’s council.

The suggestion came after Mi Riconosci, an association of professionals working in the cultural heritage sector, undertook a census of all statues of Italian figures erected in public spaces across the country and found that only 148 were dedicated to women.

Federica Arcoraci, an art historian with Mi Riconosci, said Prato della Valle’s male-only line-up had “an impact on our lives and collective imagination”. She said: “The Prato della Value regulation of 1776 forbade having statues of saints, living people and people with no ties to the city, but never prohibited the representation of women.

“Obviously, that was the result of a particular trend in history. But today it is possible to create a project that is connected with the history of the square in its entirety.”

Nevertheless, the proposal immediately sparked debate, with detractors arguing that placing a statue of Piscopia in the square would be “out of context” with its history. Carlo Fumian, a history professor at the University of Padua, said the “expensive and bizarre” idea was “a bit trendy, but culturally inconsistent”.

“Moving monuments as if they were Lego is a dangerous and unintelligent game,” he told the local newspaper, Il Mattino di Padova. “Instead, we should help people discover the original [statue], triumphantly seated at the university.”

Art historian Davide Tramarin said the two empty pedestals should remain empty as they represented a symbol of the historical destruction by Napoleon’s troops.

Fabrizio Magani, the superintendent of Padua’s cultural heritage, is open to the idea, but suggested a female figure from more recent history ought to be celebrated in the square.

“It’s shocking that even just the proposal to have a statue representing an important figure of the city has caused such a debate,” said Leonardo Bison, a Padua-based journalist. “But it’s surprising that Piscopia is not there when other less important male figures are.”

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