October 30, 2011

ANOTHER POWERFUL WOMAN (written from Seattle)

     I rose this morning and checked the weather before I decided what to wear. My computer said it was 61 degrees and would go up to 67. After dressing, I went out to get the paper. It seemed much colder than 61, but I was still sleepy and had not eaten breakfast, so perhaps my body was registering the temperature incorrectly. It was not until I went out to run errands later in the morning, shivering in my simple shirt, that I realized my computer was still set on Venice weather. It is a good metaphor for where I am: my head still back on the canal, my body adjusting to a new time zone.

Gary and Andrea at Dante's Tomb
     Our last weekend in Italy, we took the train to Ravenna. Several years ago Gary helped a young journalist there solve a mystery. Andrea Casadio had located a signature in a guest book at Dante’s tomb in Ravenna, Italy, from 1910, for a Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Beck in Ravenna Park, Washington. Intrigued by the shared city names, Andrea began to research this mystical place in America that he could not find on a map. He contacted Gary and, after some research on the Becks supplemented by pictures Gary took of the area of Seattle still called the Ravenna neighborhood, In-Magazine in Ravenna published Andrea’s article.

     Gary and Andrea have stayed in contact, so we journeyed there to meet face-to-face. Andrea gave us an amazing tour of this city that was a seat of power in the Roman Empire and is filled with Byzantine mosaics. Andrea is a self-made historian and is far more knowledgeable about the region than the usual tour guide.

     We visited the archive where the book signed by the Becks is stored. The archivist gave us a personal tour of the rooms of ancient books that had formerly belonged to the Benedictine monks until Napoleon seized them for the state. I was struck by how the rooms, organized by subject, parallel Elena Piscopia’s education. We are most grateful to Andrea for the in-depth view of Ravenna. We appreciate his strenuous efforts at conducting his tours in English so that we might understand more clearly.

     Andrea had read my blog and knew of my interest in strong women, so he insisted I learn about Galla Placidia. We visited her tomb and he bought me a short biography. She is a bit more vicious than most of my heroines but her hold on power in the early fifth century was exceptional, her machinations not unlike those of Cleopatra. I am not sure I wish to write about her, but I will certainly add her to my list of remarkable women when I lecture about women who were feminists even before we invented the word.

October 17, 2011



We took two side trips last week: one to Verona to see Juliet and another to Padua to learn more about Elena Piscopia.


A Modern Juliet
My husband Gary has a genealogy client in California whom he had met only over Skype. Since the client, his friends and Gary and I were all in Italy at the same time, we arranged to meet in Verona. The client arranged a tour of the city and a wonderful lunch. We are still discussing the stimulating conversation with our new-found acquaintances from California and the memorable pumpkin gnocchi with truffles.

Of course, the highlight of any tour to Verona is visiting Juliet’s balcony. Since the balcony is unlikely to be authentic, the real fun was having the tour guide point out all the sites in the movie “Letters to Juliet.” I had not realized that there are really women who answer the letters left for Juliet, so the movie is based on some truth.

Souvenirs of Romeo and Juliet abound and I was struck by the contribution made to Verona by Shakespeare. It is believed that an Italian wrote an epic of this love story and that Shakespeare borrowed it, but it is the Englishman’s story that has lived through the centuries. His writing was so powerful that even today countless vendors make their living off of his creativity.


Elena's Status at the University 
We had visited Padua nine years ago and had even seen Elena Piscopia’s statue at the University of Padua, but I was focused on my Vivaldi book at that time and had not then decided to write about Elena. As we look for secrets to her life, we decided we must re-visit Padua. We had one of those days filled with blessings. I had made a list of all the places I wanted to see. All were open on a Saturday and their hours of operation coincided with our requirements. We toured the massive basilica of Saint Anthony and saw a cenotaph to Elena. Then we toured the University of Padua, where Galileo taught and Elena received the first degree awarded to a woman anywhere in the world. After lunch sitting in the sunshine, which was welcome for the wind had a nippy quality, we took a short bus tour of the city then returned just in time to visit the church of Santa Giustina. We knew that Elena’s tomb was in Saint Giustina and the tour guide at the University had encouraged us to see it.

She had described the rectangular tombstone, but we could not locate it. I approached an antique nun wandering in the nave who seemed to belong there. I went up to her and asked about Elena. She stared at me so blankly that I wondered if her mind was intact, especially when she grabbed my hand, her long fingernails pressing into my palm. Then she started to tell me about the tomb of St. Luke and to describe the other chapels clearly, but she shook her head that she knew nothing of Elena Piscopia.

Cornaro Coat of Arms on Elena's Grave
We wandered some more and I was ready to yield when Gary approached an elderly monk wearing an apron. Interrupting his arrangement of the kneelers at the front of the church, Gary asked about Elena Piscopia. His tired shoulders lifted and he began to walk slowly, but with an energy that demonstrated the vigor of his earlier years. We followed him down the transept to a chapel that was hidden behind two doors. Inside he moved aside a pew and pointed to the floor where Elena’s body lies. The words and the Cornaro coat of arms demonstrated its veracity. He allowed us to take pictures and kept shaking his head, almost as pleased as we were. When Gary handed him a small offering, the money disappeared quickly into the pocket of his habit.

We visited the street where Elena had lived and happened upon a tour of a Loggia for theatre presentations and an Odeon for musical performances built by one of Elena’s ancestors. The guide gave the tour in Italian and then offered to take us back to explain in English the things we had missed.

When the train crossed the lagoon toward Venice the sun turned the water the color of antique glass as it set on our day.

(Photographs contributed by Gary Zimmerman)


October 9, 2011

Searching for Elena

Searching for Elena

Elena Piscopia Cornaro was the first woman to receive a university degree (in 1678). There have been several biographies of her life so I know the facts; but I want to know more about her thoughts and desires and heart, so I am searching for her in Venice. Since my husband Gary and I arrived a few days ago we have searched for her at her family home, in the streets of Venice and in the library.

Elena's Home
The Cornaro home where Elena lived is now a municipal building for the city of Venice and we were able to explore the first two floors. It was later renovated by the Loredan family and now bears their name, so we have to extrapolate which features might have existed in the seventeenth century. The Cornaro coat of arms, however, is still ensconced over the back door. 

Cornaro Coat of Arms
As with my last book on Caterina Cornaro (from a branch of the same family, in the sixteenth century), I have drafted the story and am now searching for color and veracity before I begin the long revision process. We wandered the streets, trying to see what Elena and her father and mother could view from the Canal or from their home. Fortunately, Venice has altered little in the last few centuries, so much of what we see existed in a similar form during the time period of this book.

The libraries here still have our names in their databases so we gained easy access. The Querini Stampalia, where we began our research, has a modern entry and stairs but these lead into rooms that transport you to another time: tables with heavy lathe-turned legs, carved dark chairs and wooden floors whose creak under your shoes, no matter how gingerly you walk, is the only disruption of absolute silence.

Returning to Venice

We are nesting in the apartment we rented on our last trip and have already checked out the familiar necessities: the Coop grocery store where you must remember to use rubber gloves when handling the produce, the internet shop which is one of the few places with WiFi, and the local laundry.

Each day we walk past the best mask shop in Venice. Although the shop advertises papier-machè and uses traditional mask-making techniques, they also have extravagant ceramic masks in designs from the traditional to the modern to the imaginative. Three years ago we bought a small mask there and it hangs on the wall in our living room. The mask shop is right next to our favorite bookstore where cats rest on all the books that are stacked in gondolas or crammed onto shelves.

One change is in the location of our weekend Mass. In the past we have gone to Vivaldi’s church but the congregation was very small and apparently the church has been decommissioned. The church now charges admission and presents concerts. Venice is full of churches, so finding a local one with a convenient Mass was easy.

One new discovery, recommended by our landlord, is the wine shop near us where you purchase a liter of decent wine, siphoned from a jug into a 1.5 liter plastic water bottle for 3 euros (about $4.50).

We have returned to familiar restaurants and some new ones but we usually fix breakfast and dinner in our apartment, a graceful boon because food here is very expensive.