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Proposed statue of 17th-century female prodigy raises uncomfortable questions about Italy's monuments

A movement to honour Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman in the world to graduate from university, with a statue in Padua's Prato della Valle square has sparked a national debate in Italy about historical conservation and gender representation in monuments.

Movement to honour 17th-century intellectual prodigy in Padua's Prato della Valle

Margherita Colonnello, a city councillor in the northern Italian city of Padua, stands beside a statue of the sculptor Andrea Briosco. At its feet is a bust of female poet Gaspara Stampa. Colonnello wants to remedy the lack of female inclusion among the statues lining Prato della Valle square. (Megan Williams/CBC)

When Padua city councillor Margherita Colonnello was in high school, she learned that among the 78 towering marble statues of illustrious locals and others — popes and Galileo among them — that lined her city's magnificent Prato della Valle square was one of a beloved 16th-century female poet, Gaspara Stampa.

When Colonnello set out to the square to find the poet, though, she says, her heart sank.

"She was just a little head at the feet of the sculptor Andrea Briosco," she said, "there to show what a great sculptor he was."

Colonnello, 29, is now attempting to remedy the lack of female inclusion among the piazza's statues — a move that is being met with local resistance and has sparked a national debate about historical conservation and gender representation in monuments.

Last month, Colonnello and fellow city councillor Simone Pillitteri, with the backing of a group of cultural heritage workers, proposed the addition of a statue of another remarkable woman from Padua's past: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia. They want Cornaro Piscopia placed on a pedestal left vacant after Napoleon's troops toppled some statues in 1797.

A statue of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman in the world to graduate from university, sits at the bottom of a staircase at the University of Padua. She and other prominent Paduan women were excluded when the Prato della Valle square was constructed in the late 18th century. (Gustav Hofer)

Cornaro Piscopia, an intellectual prodigy, was the first woman in the world to graduate from university, with a doctorate in philosophy in 1678. But when the Prato della Valle square was constructed 100 years after her death, she and other prominent women in Paduan history were excluded from the pantheon of local heroes.

A smaller statue of her, the only one in Italy, sits at the bottom of a dimly lit staircase at the nearby University of Padua.

Italy has about 200 public statues of women

This year, the university is celebrating its 800th anniversary, and for the first time it has a female rector — another reason, Colonnello says, it's the right time to put Cornaro Piscopia in a prominent public place.

"Women are so important, they finally have their place," she said. "So what's the problem to represent this? It's our present."

The dearth of female statues is hardly unique to Padua. The first survey on female monuments in Italy, conducted in December 2021 by Mi Riconosci, an association of heritage workers, found that only 200 or so statues of women stand in public spots throughout Italy. The vast majority are rendered by male artists.

"This may explain why most of these statues are beautiful and young ... [and] quite sexualized," said Francesca Tomei, an archeologist with Mi Riconosci.

The bronze sculpture of the La Spigolatrice di Sapri (The Gleaner of Sapri) was unveiled in September 2021 in Sapri, Italy. The sculpture triggered national outrage and charges of sexism by critics who said she looked more like a starlet than a woman who works in the fields. (Valentino Palermo/The Associated Press)

As a recent example, she points to the statue of La Spigolatrice di Sapri (The Gleaner of Sapri) — someone who collects bits of grain after the harvest — that more closely resembles a wet T-shirt contestant than an agricultural labourer. Unveiled in September 2021 by former prime minister Giuseppe Conte in the town of Sapri, in Italy's southwest, it triggered national outrage and prompted Mi Riconosci to launch its survey.

Yet despite the fact that the proposal in Padua is to add a statue, not to take one down, academics and politicians have branded the bid "cancel culture."

Proposal to add woman's statue 'superficial'

Carlo Fumian, a contemporary history professor at the University of Padua, opposes the proposition, calling it "superficial" and "more a whim" than a fully thought-out idea.

He agrees with Mi Riconosci that Padua and Italy have a problem with lack of female representation in monuments and street names. And as a member of a municipal commission responsible for suggesting names for new public spaces and streets, Fumian says calling them after noteworthy women is the commission's first priority.

Carlo Fumian, a contemporary history professor at the University of Padua, walks along Prato della Valle. While he says Padua and Italy have a problem with lack of female representation in monuments, he opposes placing a statue of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia on an empty pedestal in the square. (Gustav Hofer)

But he says placing a statue of Cornaro Piscopia on one of the square's pedestals — which Padua left empty to mark Napoleon's invasion and the end of the millennium-long Venetian Republic — would distort history by erasing the memory of Napoleon's destruction of the original statues.

"This isn't back to the future, where you put banana peels in a time machine and return to the past to change it for reparation purposes," he said. "It's pretty dangerous to play a game with statues ... to destroy or build something. You have to explain monuments ... you have to explain why this is empty, not just to put a copy of a statue that we already have at the university."

But the argument that the empty pedestal in the park is historically significant doesn't hold water with members of Mi Riconosci.

"For this square to be a historical witness to something, people should know exactly what that is, and they don't," said Leonardo Bison, a local archeologist and cultural writer.

"This is a highly used public space that's in evolution. That doesn't mean you have to make changes to the monuments. But it does mean you can't say this is a fixed space, crystallized in one historical moment."

Seventy-eight towering marble statues of illustrious locals line Padua's magnificent Prato della Valle square. A dearth of female statues isn't unique to the city, with a recent study finding that only 200 or so statues of women stand in public spots throughout Italy. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Bison, who was completing a PhD in history in Bristol when the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest, says the event led to a growth in his awareness of the cultural power of monuments. But his colleagues in Italy, he says, were shocked.

"[They] judged it as so-called cancel culture, as an attempt to erase history," he said. "They were saying, 'They're going to try to take down all the Fascist-era buildings, even the Colosseum, which was built with slave labour!' which of course, didn't happen."

'Several important Paduan women'

Bison and other cultural workers say Italy has a different relationship with its monuments than that found in Britain and North America. Everything older than 70 years is protected by cultural heritage laws, and while Italy has colonial monuments, the country has had few issues with restitution.

The country is still grappling with its Fascist legacy and monuments and has controversial statues, such as of Christopher Columbus, but they are not officially celebrated by the state or a community and therefore are not sites of social conflict, he says.

WATCH | Debate sparked about gender representation in Italy's monuments:

Italy’s statues face representation battle

5 months ago
Duration 2:32
A movement to add a statue of the first woman to graduate from university, Elena Cornaro Piscopia, to a famed square, Prato della Valle, in Padua, Italy, has sparked a national debate about historical conservation and gender representation in monuments.

Still, if Italians want to talk about cancel culture, members of Mi Riconosci say they need look no further than Prato della Valle today, with 10 of the original statues of Venetian doges "cancelled" by Napoleon in 1799 — along with what Bison calls the particularly pronounced patriarchal culture of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that ignored the accomplishments of women.

"You often hear people justify the lack of female statues here by saying that before the 19th century, there were no important women," he said. "But there are several important Paduan women who were famous throughout Europe but who aren't here."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.

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