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)


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