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. 

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