The Bliss of Solitude

We don’t feel the same, this is for sure. There are those who are able to go beyond the objective form of things, faces, actions and perceive something more. Why am I overwhelmed by a series of emotions when I watch the sea, for example, a particular form of the clouds in the sky, the colours of a sunset and have this sense of amazement as if I saw them for the first time, while the people next to me perceive nothing but the last message on whatsapp ?  Romantic poets called this faculty a peculiar kind of sensibility called “imagination”, which is a “greater promptness to think and feel without immediate external excitement” (Wordsworth, Preface, 579) . If you feel in this way, you are endowed with the power to see the extraordinary into the ordinary as you are more receptive to the beauty of the world.

His famous poem “I Wandered Lonely as a loud”, for example, is all about the poet’s sensitivity. Wordsworth remembers a walk through the woods of Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater, in the Lake District and tells us that he is lonely and feels as light as a cloud floating in the sky. It must have been one of those rare days of bliss when one feels in peace and harmony with the entire world and enjoys the serenity of nature. In such a receptive mood, he unexpectedly finds himself before a stretch of daffodils whose glowing beauty overwhelms the senses of the poet:

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
But if we give a look at his sister Dorothy’s diary, where this walk is described, we find out that those lines are not the faithful report of the truth. What the poets felt might not be exactly be what he saw. She tells, in fact, a slightly different story. First of all, he was not alone that day, but in her company, and at first glance the daffodils were not exactly “a crowd”, but just a few: “When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water-side. We fancied that the lake had floated the seeds ashore, and that the little colony had so sprung up.”  But ” as we went along there were more and yet more; and at last, under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful.” On this point, they agree.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance
Both Dorothy and her brother imagine those daffodils as people moving their heads in a joyous dance: “They grew among the mossy stones about and about them; some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness; and the rest tossed and reeled and danced, and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind, that blew upon them over the lake; they looked so gay, ever glancing, ever-changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them”. The words she uses are very similar to those used by her brother, so I guess, it is not only a coincidence, but they must have commented together the beautiful scene before them. And so he continues:
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
The nature around him, the waves and flowers, everything appears to be engaged in a cheerful dance and the poet is not only an observer but  part of that beauty so much that his soul is pervaded by an intense thrill of joy. While reading the poem, we are always under the impression that the day was warm and sunny, as  both the flowers and the waves of the lake nearby sparkle like stars in the milky way, so I imagine that it must the reflection of the sun rays on water, instead, surprisingly, Dorothy refers: ‘It was a threatening, misty morning, but mild. We set off after dinner from Eusemere. Mrs Clarkson went a short way with us, but turned back. The wind was furious, and we thought we must have returned…..The bays were stormy, and we heard the waves at different distances, and in the middle of the water, like the sea. Rain came on . . .’
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
It is in the last stanza of the poem that Wordsworth reveals us when we are more receptive and likely to feel these emotions : when we are alone with ourselves. Loneliness for the poet is a moment of bliss. In that moment, as in his case, you can be owerwhelmed by pleasant memories or creative inspiration and be able to look deeper at what surrounds you and find heartwarming beauty. If you are alone, of course, without your smartphone nearby.
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The Parable of the Iguana

ig2I’m a shopaholic. I’ve learnt I suffered from this disease, when I first read the whole Kinsella’s saga about shopping. Whoever thinks it is all about fashion addiction, he may prove wrong, as, actually, it’s all about the thrill. The thrill of finding and owing the perfect pair of shoes or bag, which matches wonderfully with the perfect outfit. It is that thrill. And for the sake of that emotion we lie first of all to ourselves and to the people we interact daily, saying that we do need it, that we cannot do without it and, of course, it will be just the last time. I will not be so. The psychological traits of Becky, Sophie Kinsella’s heroine, may seem absurd and comic at the same time, but they are actually real, so real that when my mother read “I Love Shopping”, she commented reproachfully :” it seems she knows you”.

ig4However, in the opulent western societies the word “need” is not exactly what it meant years ago, as the powerful messages and stereotypes, we are bombarded with through medias every day, confound us to such a degree, that we find hard to distinguish the difference between what we want and what we need. Do I really need that brand new pair of shoes, the 85th pair in fact, or do I want it? Can I truly live well without the last technical gadget? Do I really need it? We slowly become addicted to that intense but short emotion of possessing the thing of our dreams and as soon as that moment of pleasure and satisfaction burns out, we need to replace it quickly with another one even stronger that might fill the emptied space of our soul and on, and on, and on. Till nothing will be able to satisfy us one day. Just like that iguana.

ig1Which iguana? I guess you would say, in case you ventured to read this post this far. Well, few years ago I made a fantastic trip down to Costa Rica. We drove along the Pacific coast, till we reached the most renowned national park of the country: Manuel Antonio. The scenery was breath-taking: tropical white sandy beaches surrounded by a luxuriant, wild nature. We decided to explore it all in the quest of the most beautiful beach. It was August, so after an hour of walking under the heat of the sun of those latitudes, we were so sweaty and worn out that we decided to stop. The nearest beach was named “Puerto Escondido”, well, it wasn’t actually the most dazzling one we had seen, furthermore, the sea bank was mostly inhabited by hundreds of huge colorful crabs and iguanas, but we were so tired that we resolved upon stopping anyway. When the crabs sensed our approaching steps, they instantly disappeared in the sand, leaving large holes in the shore, but the iguanas didn’t move. They stood there not at all intimidated by our presence.

ig5After a refreshing swim, we lay down on the beach to rest and sunbathe. The iguanas had kept on observing us motionless like greenish prehistoric statues. After a while, I decided it was high time to fraternize with the hosts of that secluded place using the universal language of food. As I had some Pringles with me, I approached the nearest iguana and I handed delicately one crisp. After some long seconds of immobility, the inanimate creature attempted a move, craned its neck, smelt the Pringle and gave a small bite. I regarded it a great success.The iguana devoured the first, the second, the third crisp and seemed to be wanting for more. I was very proud of my experiment, but a French tourist, who had seen the whole scene, came by and told me, well….he actually lectured me, that iguanas are vegetarian, that they are not used to salt and that with my “feat” I was destroying their sense of taste. Once tried those strong artificial flavors, they wouldn’t have gone back any longer to their usual, now tasteless, food. I was mortified and instinctively hid the body of crime behind my back. He, then, went away and, of course, I didn’t dare give another Pringle to the poor iguana, which kept on imploring me with its eyes for some more. However, every now and then the words of the French tourist echo in my mind and I have come to the following conclusion: we are nothing but the iguanas of a society that feeds us with artificial emotions, thus creating addiction for the sake of profit. And you know what? Even if now I am fully aware of it, well, it won’t be enough to cure my addiction. No, it won’t, that’s the problem.

Objective Correlative

As far as we know the term “objective correlative” was first coined by the American painter and poet Washington Allston and only later introduced by T.S.Eliot into his essay “Hamlet and His Problems”.   Eliot regarded “Hamlet ” as a sort of “artistic failure”, because Shakespeare, according to him, had not succeeded in making the audience feel properly Hamlet’s overwhelming emotions. The bard had not gone beyond describing the Prince of Denmark’s emotional state through the play’s dialogue, rather than stirring minds and souls to feel as he did, and this could have happened only through a skilful use of images, actions and characters:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

In short, poetry must not express emotions but rather find objects, situations and facts capable of evoking them in a definite and ordinary reality.  Hence, the objective correlative correlates the state of mind of the poet to a series of tangible and well-defined objects, thus giving a strong semantic significance to the poet’s feelings. Pain, restlessness, bitterness are no longer expressed through the description virtual or abstract elements, but rather concrete and real, like a landscape, a house, a wall, a lemon tree, but also the sea, a stormy boat, a marina and so on, in this way to poets succeeds in conferring those images a universal meaning.

In the Waste Land, for example, the fragility, the sense of loss and depression of the post-war generation is reproduced powerfully by the following set of words “a heap of broken images“. The war had destroyed from the foundations the world as it was and only the ruins and the bits and pieces of that past had remained. Those fragments are piled up untidily and there is no way to reconstruct the former unity. It is gone, what remains is only “stony rubbish“, that is: useless. The men who inhabit this Waste Land are stunned and devoid of any certainty and perspective, they have been “dried” of their values and once stripped of every superstructure, they have turned themselves into basic elements like “tubers” and prefer to rest safely protected by the “forgetful” winter snow rather than to put their heads out of the ground and act. Men are like “dull roots“, but roots must clutch at something in order to survive, something that might give them the impression of meaning to the days yet to come, but in a sterile lands what seems to nourish and comfort you for the present may become poisonous and turn into a tragedy in a close future. We all know that those “dried tubers” found relief drinking at the fountain which gave life to those populisms which grew in those fatal twenty years between the two wars.

All this in just few simple words, which thus combined give the formula to any reader to feel the state of mind of those who lived one the most tragic periods of our history.

 

 

 

 

Fettuccine, Lasagne and Alfredo

Whenever I travel abroad, I never go for Italian restaurants. Not any more. First of all because I enjoy tasting the typical flavours of the countries I visit, those surprising combinations of food I would never think of at home, secondly because I have never been able to find a decent one, only bad copies and so I gave up. What lacks in the majority of Italian restaurants abroad is the real Italian thing. Even something elementary like an espresso is never like what it tastes at home – not even the five-pound Lavazza cup of coffee at Harrods was close to the original one –  it is not a matter of water or the quality of coffee, but rather it is a matter culture. Yes, culture, because food is an expression of cultures. Every dish is the final product of cooking rituals transmitted from generations to generations, gestures that date back in time. That is why it is difficult to reproduce a recipe of another country faithfully, even a good cup of tea, unless you understand it fully and you become sensitive enough to perceive its many nuances.That is culture. I still remember the dexterity my mother prepared home-made tagliatelle, those precious movements that she had learnt from her mother and grandmother. I have seen her so many times, that if I would venture to make them myself, I would know what to do: the doses, the correct thickness of pasta layer ect., as it is part of my culture.

I remember once I gave an intensive class to some English friends of mine who were very fond of Italian cooking, on how to prepare a true Italian lasagna properly : ragout, cheese, the right  numbers of pasta layers, cream sauce…. I told them everything so that they eventually had all the necessary information and secrets to prepare a marvellous one. So after practicing a while, one day they decided they had become good enough to invite me for dinner and try their lasagna. Indeed I was surprised. About 300 meters before reaching the gate of their house, I started to smell something pungent in the air, something like….onion! Onion? I had never mentioned the word onion, but they thought that in my recipe there was something lacking and  that something for them was onion, actually, tons of onion! I might have turned my back, but I did not. I politely ate it all, with some effort, could I have acted otherwise? The enormous quantity of onion used to prepare the ragout had made it indigestible, at least for me. When I eventually finished my portion they asked: ” Did you enjoy it?”  What could I say?” Of course” was my answer . “It seems truly Italian, doesn’t it” “Truly” I couldn’t but reply. ” Some more?” “ NO!

The point is that the majority of those restaurants, which pretend to be Italian, keep in their menus recipes which are not Italian at all or have contaminated the original ones with the more familiar flavours of the countries they have their business, just to please and attract new customers. For example, only abroad I have learnt about the existence of an Italian recipe called “Tagliatelle Bolognese”, that is tagliatelle with a thick ragout, but actually no Italian would associate the wordBolognese” to that dish. And what about the famous “Fettuccine(i) Alfredo?” Fist of all, who is Alfredo? This “Italian” recipe is well-known mostly in the States, but completely unknown here. It actually reminds those typical dishes in fashion in the late eighties: pasta, 3/4 types of cheese and cream – in the eighties cream was very fashionable – . As far as I can imagine, as I have never dared experience such a delicacy, if you don’t eat it quickly, it might turn into concrete in a few seconds. So if you come here having in mind  to order a good portion of “Fettuccine Alfredo”, this is the wrong country, you have to go back from where you started very likely.

Another point to be discussed is pasta cooking time. Here in Italy we enjoy it “al dente” that is a minute less that the indicated cooking time, even two if you come from the South, but whenever I used to order it abroad, it was always overcooked if not creamy. Just disgusting. Yet, cooking pasta Italian style shouldn’t be that difficult: when the water boils, add some salt, put the pasta in the pot, wait for the indicated time, better a little less and that’s it. And would you like to know what is tastiest truly Italian pasta recipe ? The simplest one. Just few steps. Blanch some fresh plum tomatoes to remove their skins and then cut them in half lengthwise to scoop out the seeds. Afterwards chop them and set them aside in a bowl. Heat some good olive oil in a skillet pan, add a couple of cloves of garlic and let them brown slowly. Then add the tomatoes you had prepared beforehand, a pinch of salt and take the garlic out. While the sauce simmers, heat the water for the pasta. Cook the spaghetti and drain them, when it is time. Add the pasta to the sauce and cook over medium-high heat until all the liquid is absorbed and the pasta is al dente. You may add the pasta cooking liquid if necessary. As last step, remove the pan from the heat; add some extra-virgin olive oil, few leaves of basil, parmisan or pecorino cheese. Just delicious and Italian. And remember, less is more !!

I

Chimney Sweepers

During the Industrial Revolution  thousands of  desperate people came to the cities seeking work, but those lucky who managed to find one soon realized that the average wage would have kept them in poverty for the rest of their lives. Justices were given authority over the children of poor families, and began to assign them to apprenticeships to provide them with work, food and shelter.

For master chimney sweeps, these small, defenseless children of powerless or absent parents were the perfect victims to be exploited in their business.

“When my mother died I was very young,
And my father sold me while yet my tongue
Could scarcely cry ” ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep! ‘weep!”
So your chimneys I sweep & in soot I sleep.”

 

Their apprenticeships lasted seven years or even more, but being generally unsupervised, once the papers were signed, the children were completely left under the power of their masters. Once left, their families often didn’t see them any longer. A Master was paid a fee to clothe, keep and teach the child his trade. Even if it common belief that both the master and the child apprentices were always male, this wasn’t always true, as many girls also climbed chimneys.

There’s little Tom Dacre, who cried when his head
That curled like a lamb’s back, was shaved, so I said,
“Hush, Tom! never mind it, for when your head’s bare,
You know that the soot cannot spoil your white hair.”

 
After the Great Fire of London in 1666 new fire codes were necessarily put in place. Chimneys became smaller to burn coal and the number of turns and corners in the flues increased. The flues gathered ash, soot and creosote much more quickly than the larger, straighter chimneys had, so they needed cleaning more often. The chimney flues were pitch black, claustrophobic, potentially full of suffocating soot and confusing to navigate in the dark. Sweepers’ job was, actually, to climb up, inside the chimney, brushing the flue as they went, propelling themselves by their knees and elbows and they weren’t done till their heads poked out of the chimney top. This, of course, was a scary job for these children and they were often unwilling to perform it, therefore, many masters used a dangerous punishment: first the child was forced up the flue and then a fire was lit. Since he couldn’t come down, he had no choice but to climb up the flue. Maybe this is where the term “light a fire under you” originated.

And so he was quiet, & that very night,
As Tom was a-sleeping he had such a sight!
That thousands of sweepers, Dick, Joe, Ned, & Jack,
Were all of them locked up in coffins of black;

 
If the apprentice climbed the whole chimney, cleaning it from hearth to rooftop, and exited a row of chimneys, he could forget which chimney he came out of. When that happened, he could go back down the wrong one, or go down the right chimney, but make a wrong turn at some merging of the flues. Children could suffocate or burn to death by getting lost on the way down, and accidentally entering the wrong chimney flue. These children lived in deplorable conditions. They carried a large sack with them, into which they dumped the soot they swept from the chimneys. They used this same sack as a blanket to sleep in at night, and only bathed infrequently. They were often sick, and learned to beg food and clothing from their customers as all the money they earned went to their masters.

And by came an Angel who had a bright key,
And he opened the coffins & set them all free;
Then down a green plain, leaping, laughing they run,
And wash in a river and shine in the Sun.

 
Even if some children actually received the weekly bath outlined in the apprenticeship agreement, the majority of them was never bathed or followed a more common custom of 3 baths per year, at Whitsuntide (shortly after Easter), Goose Fair (early October) and Christmas. In London, many sweeper apprentices used to wash on their own in a local river, the Serpentine, till one of them drowned. Since then the children were discouraged from bathing in rivers.

Then naked & white, all their bags left behind,
They rise upon clouds, and sport in the wind.
And the Angel told Tom, if he’d be a good boy,
He’d have God for his father & never want joy.

 
Another great increase in the use of small children as chimney sweeps occurred in England after 1773. Parliament passed an act which said that children couldn’t be kept in a workhouse for longer than 3 weeks, as it had been found out that death rates in both workhouses and orphanages was very high: only 7 out of every hundred children survived for a year after being placed in an orphanage. The effect of this act was that small children became much more available not only to chimney sweeps, but to any other business owners who were looking for cheap labor.

And so Tom awoke; and we rose in the dark
And got with our bags & our brushes to work.
Though the morning was cold, Tom was happy & warm;
So if all do their duty, they need not fear harm. (The Chimney Sweeper, Songs of Innocence, William Blake)

 

The children risked to be stuck in the chimneys or die from burns and suffocation or even from long falls. For what concerns the boys, there was also another danger. Coal soot found its way easily into the folds of skin on a boy’s scrotal sac due to loose clothing and climbing in the nude. As the soot was not washed off for months at a time over the years, many of the boys developed scrotal cancer, called “chimney sweep’s cancer” about the time they entered puberty.

 

A little black thing among the snow,
Crying “weep! ‘weep!” in notes of woe!
“Where are thy father and mother? say?”
“They are both gone up to the church to pray.

 

Because I was happy upon the heath,
And smil’d among the winter’s snow,
They clothed me in the clothes of death,
And taught me to sing the notes of woe.

 

And because I am happy and dance and sing,
They think they have done me no injury,
And are gone to praise God and his Priest and King,
Who make up a heaven of our misery.” (The Chimney Sweeper, Songs of Experience, William Blake)

Soldiers

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam;
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

 

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

 

If I should die” …. a thought that must have crossed the minds of soldiers several times. Fear, sense of loss, homesickness are the common feelings that follow that painful moment of awareness, which takes the form of death. It “puzzles the will“, Hamlet mused and can make us cowards, but for Rupert Brooke the sacrifice of one’s life for his own country ought not to be feared, but quite the contrary, particularly if that country is England. In his patriotic poem, “The Soldier”, in fact, Brooke sings the love for his country, and how noble and glorious dying for that country would be and how noble and glorious an English soldier is. Just like in Kipling’s “The White Man’s Burden” this pre-war poem is still full of the imperialistic ideal of the superiority of the English troops in their civilising missions all over the world. This English soldier seems to be a sort of god, who does not fear death. He is serene, as he believes that wherever he will die, that place will be forever England.

I can assure you that for non-English readers, this is a very striking line. The idea that and an English soldier once dead with his dust could somehow “fertilize” any “foreign land” with the seeds of Englishness, turning it into a better and richer place is  undoubtedly a powerful picture of English patriotism and nationalism. English indeed. The war Brooke images, is somewhat idyllic, there is no blood, dirt, cold, fear and death is represented only in its most glorious form. He didn’t have much time to experience how far this picture from reality was, in fact, he died of blood poisoning from a mosquito bite while en route to Gallipoli with the Navy. He was 27.

The truth, we know, is different. There is nothing idyllic in any war, much less World War I.  Soldiers spent endless days in muddy trenches and dugouts, living miserably until the next attack. Technological developments in engineering, metallurgy, chemistry, and optics had produced weapons deadlier than anything known before. The power of defensive weapons made winning the war on the western front all but impossible for either side. War had prolonged too much and millions of people had already died. In July of 1917 poet Siegfried Sassoon sent the following open letter to his commanding officer and refused to return to the trenches:

Lt. Siegfried Sassoon.
3rd Batt: Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
July, 1917.

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolonging these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

For those who did not have enough imagination to realise the horrors of the war and continued to use the powerful means of propaganda to recruit young innocent lives, Wilfred Owen lifted the veil which covered the truth in his poem “Dulce et Decorum Est”:

“Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge…”

These opening lines of Owen’s poem smash Brooke’s epic narration. English soldiers are not young upright fearless Adonis, but look mostly like “beggars” and “hags” , who are “bent double” with fatigue, fear, cold, sickness and whose native “gentleness” has given way to rudeness and curse. They are young men who have become quickly old, once abruptly abandoned their world of innocence.

“Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”

 

This is what war is: struggle to survive, dirt, blood, pain, death. Hence, there is nothing sweet and glorious to die for one’s country, Owen concludes, quoting Horace, but it is only a  terrible lie. Owen died in action on 4 November 1918 during the crossing of the Sambre–Oise Canal, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice which ended the war.

 

“Si sta come
d’autunno
sugli alberi
le foglie.”
(It feels like in autumn on the trees leaves.) (Soldati, Giuseppe Ungaretti)

 

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro’s Accomplishments

“Women have burnt like beacons in all the works of all the poets from the beginning of time. Indeed if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some would say greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words and profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read; scarcely spell; and was the property of her husband. (Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own.)”

Only one hundred years ago the admission to culture for a woman was not for granted. Virginia Woolf herself had received a different education from her brothers who were sent to prestigious colleges, while her sisters and she were mostly home-schooled in English classics and Victorian literature. After all, nobody expected a woman at those times to become a scientist, run a company or simply be freed from patriarchical conventions to achieve her own independence. The famous passage from Austen’s Pride and Prejudice about the definition of an “accomplished woman” still fitted somehow the idea of what a woman should be like:

A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, all the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.” (Pride and Prejudice)

In short, a pretty monkey to be exhibited in society whose accomplishments aimed at attracting a man and make him eventually her husband. Yet, there had been women in the past for whom education had meant more than playing an instrument and embroidering a cushion and had struggled for their share of learning.  Actually, if we want to find the first graduated woman in the world, we have to go far back in time to the seventeenth century and, oh my god, in Italy. She was Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.

Born in Venice in 1646 , she was the fifth of seven children. Her father, Giovanni Battista Cornaro, was an ambitious and intelligent nobleman who was not afraid of going against the flow. He had chosen, in fact, to marry a woman much below his station, Zanetta Giovanna Boni, thus defying the gossipy and exclusive Venetian society. Such an unconventional father will have a fundamental influence on the girl.

Elena was only 10, when she understood how strong her passion for intellectual study was. At those times, when women were only allowed to choose between matrimony and the nunnery, Elena embarked on a new, solitary and in a way scandalous path. Elena showed a surprising ease in learning and her father could not ignore it, therefore, she received tutoring in Latin and Greek, as well as grammar and music. But that was not enough. She also mastered Hebrew, Spanish, French, and Arabic, so that her command of languages brought the title Oraculum Septilingue. Yet, Elena’s greatest love was philosophy and in particular that forbidden land  – for a woman –  which was theology. Therefore, in 1672 Elena’s father sent her bright girl to the distinguished University of Padua, which was one of the main and most celebrated universities in the world, but tied to ecclesiastical power.

Even if she knew that women were not allowed to achieve a degree in theology at those times, she really didn’t care much about it. She just wanted to continue her learning, but it was her father who wanted the world to recognize and celebrate his daughter’s incredible knowledge and insisted on her getting the deserved degree. So, Elena applied for a Doctorate of Theology degree, but her application met the resistance of Gregorio Barbarigo, bishop of Padua, whose authorization, as Registrar of the University, was binding.  He refused the idea of conferring the title of Doctor of Theology upon a woman, an act that, he believed, would have made them look ridiculous at the eyes of the world. Elena insisted again, but this time the Church compromised and allowed Elena Piscopia to apply for a Doctorate of Philosophy instead.

A woman with a university degree became soon common talk, so the day of Elena Piscopia’s examination there were so many spectators that rather than being held in the University Hall of the University of Padua, it was transferred to the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin in Padua. Throughout her examination, Elena’s brilliant answers amazed and awed her examiners, who determined that her vast knowledge surpassed the Doctorate of Philosophy. On June 25, 1678 Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia received the Doctorate of Philosophy degree from the University of Padua. At age thirty-two she was the first woman in the world to receive a doctorate degree. In addition, she also received the Doctor’s Ring, the Teacher’s Ermine cape, and the Poet’s Laurel Crown.

Being a woman, however, she was not allowed to teach at university, yet, she became an esteemed member of various academies throughout Europe, and received visits from scholars from all parts of the world. Elena enjoyed debating, giving lectures in theology, and composing music. After successfully receiving her degree Elena Piscopia devoted her life to charity.  She will die in Padua on July 26, 1684.

Two more centuries will have to pass before women can enter universities. Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia has been the first who initiated a long and very slow process of inclusion of women in the world of culture, demonstrating that intelligence and brilliance do not have gender.