November 7, 2012

Elena Piscopia’s Mother

     There is an adage that “History is written by the winners.” This might be more precise if we added that the winners were men of means. I am in the midst of drafting a novel centering around Elena Piscopia, the first woman to receive an academic degree (in 1678). The protagonist in my novel is Elena’s mother, Zanetta Boni, and I have been struck by how little is known about her. 

Loggia for Theatre
Zanetta Boni's Padova Home
     Historical records about Elena’s father, Giovanni Cornaro, are easy to locate in Venetian archives. He was a nobleman with an extraordinary library and the means to hire the best tutors for Elena. He served in government, as did all wealthy Venetian men, so his exploits are documented in official records.

     Elena’s mother, however, was a not a woman of the noble class and is not much more than a footnote. Historical records do not even give us a record of her birthplace. Of course, a dearth of historical records is actually a blessing for a writer, justifying the fabrication of facts, so I should not complain. It does make me think about how history is not only colored by the winners rather than the losers, but by men rather than women, and by powerful nobility rather than ordinary citizens.

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