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.

 

 

A Matter of Chance

Miss Charlotte Lucas is exactly the kind of friend every woman wishes to have. If you are so fortunate to have as your best friend a Charlotte Lucas type, you will never be in danger of being overshadowed by her, as this specimen is usually “not handsome enough” to draw the interest of a man on her first – you know, we women are quite sensitive on this point – and she never seeks attention, but rather, she enjoys to see you in the limelight (I’ve never met one). In that shadow where Charlotte Lucas has comfortably placed herself for all her life, she has had all the time to study people and their behaviour in society, thus maturing a particular sensibility that allows her to detect whatever becomes unusual in their actions and to see events before they do happen. She is the first one to perceive Darcy’s change in attitude towards her friend Elizabeth and she is quick to understand that Jane’s demureness will not be the right strategy to secure Bingley :

“..it is sometimes a disadvantage to be so very guarded. If a woman conceals her affection with the same skill from the object of it, she may lose the opportunity of fixing him; and it will then be but poor consolation to believe the world equally in the dark. There is so much of gratitude or vanity in almost every attachment, that it is not safe to leave any to itself. We can all begin freely—a slight preference is natural enough; but there are very few of us who have heart enough to be really in love without encouragement. In nine cases out of ten a women had better show more affection than she feels. Bingley likes your sister undoubtedly; but he may never do more than like her, if she does not help him on.” (Pride and Prejudice Chpt 6)

Being wise and not afraid of speaking her mind, she always tries to find the right words to warn and advice her friend Elizabeth, but as a modern Cassandra, she is hardly ever given consequence as the limelight often blunders.

Charlotte Lucas seems to know the rules of love better than any other girl, but she also knows that love is not her game; not any more. At 27, she does not allow herself any longer even to dream a meeting with her Prince Charming. She is well aware that she has got just a few cards left to play, if she wants to marry and avoid “being a burden” to her family. The search of love would reduce her chances to get a husband, well, any husband. There is no room for any deceitful romanticism for her. She truly believes that neither love, nor wealth or disposition can guarantee a happy marriage:

“Happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance. If the dispositions of the parties are ever so well-known to each other or ever so similar beforehand, it does not advance their felicity in the least. They always continue to grow sufficiently unlike afterwards to have their share of vexation; and it is better to know as little as possible of the defects of the person with whom you are to pass your life.” (Pride and Prejudice Chpt 6)

Soon after Charlotte convinces Elizabeth to sing before their friends and Darcy. Once again, while Lizzie enjoys the limelight, she quietly retreats in her shadow, but her remarks cannot be ignored. Are these words or wisdom or just the bitter conclusions of a disappointed young woman?  Of course, Elizabeth, who is six years younger and claims her right to marry for love, considers her speculations unreasonable and laughs at her. When you are 21, even 30 and your entire life is before you, Charlotte’s disquisition may sound ridiculous, but when you grow older and you can ponder on yours and even your friends’ relationships, would I still laugh at the idea that happiness in marriage is entirely a matter of chance? I would not, and you?

It is a Truth Universally Acknowledged

Never leave the old road for a new one, if you don’t want to take the risk of dealing with unexpected situations and this is a truth universally acknowledged for me. I’m writing this, as, few days ago I meant to introduce Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice in one of my (many) classes, but I felt like doing it in a different way this time. I wanted them to focus on the opening lines of the book, so I assigned the following homework: tell me which is a truth universally acknowledged for you in 200 words. Of course they didn’t know whom this line belonged to and I never mentioned the name Jane Austen. Just asking. The name would have been revealed only afterwards.

Of course, they were puzzled and attempted to understand what I was actually expecting. None of them was crossed by the thought that those words might belong to somebody and “google” them. I thought them smarter or maybe I was too good at hiding my purposes. By the way, after a little hesitation I started to receive answers. Some of them considered safe to produce the truths universally acknowledged of the world and the universe like:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that the speed and position of a subatomic particle cannot be known. This concept can be found in the “Uncertainty Principle” of Heisenberg……”(Umberto P.)

Is it really so? I don’t know and I didn’t mean to check it. Another one attempted to give a scientific demonstration in his way:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a  50 cc scooter  is slower than a 125 cc  scooter…” (Vittorio F.)

Then all a sudden the answers took the form of universally acknowledged Italian truths, which mostly regarded pizza, pasta and family:

“It is a truth universally acknowledged  that when you cook carbonara pasta, a poor dish of the Roman tradition made with eggs, bacon, pecorino and pepper, you  ABSOLUTELY don’t need to add onions.” (Andrea R.)

Actually, there has always been a dispute on this point and I agreed with him, no onion in a good carbonara is required. Even with the following truth I agreed:

” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that pizza and pineapple cannot be a good match … Pineapple is a fruit and YOU CAN’T PUT FRUIT ON PIZZA!!!! . A good pineapple is sweet and juicy and I think that Italian people will never appreciate a taste like this.” (Flavio F.)
Fruit on a pizza is absolutely blasphemous, we do prefer mozzarella as topping. Ah, I’ve got one about it:
 
” It is  a truth universally acknowledged  that mozzarella cheese, should never be kept in a fridge….as the low temperature alters its flavor”. (Fabio D.B.)

Words of wisdom indeed. And what could be said about the following one?

“It is a truth universally acknowledged that when you go to visit an Italian grandmother, you have to eat a lot. Even if you’re on a diet, you can’t leave that home without having swallowed whatever she has prepared for you. It has always been so and I think we all love it. When you arrive, as your grandmother opens the door,  you can smell all the food she has prepared for you. It seems impossible, but even if you tell her that you’ll go to visit her only two hours in advance, she will be able to cook for an army. It is a grandmother’s power. Many of us go to have lunch at her home on Sundays, others go to visit her rarely, but it doesn’t matter. What really counts is her happiness when she sees you and her special attention that only a grandmother is able to give. Moments like this are the ones that describe better the word “family”. Moments like this make our adolescence amazing. Family is the most important thing in our lives.” (Eleonora R.)
This was more or less the tenor of their answers, do you think they would annoy our dear Jane?

The SimpleTruth

If somebody asked me to pick my favorite among Jane Austen’s novels I would promptly reply: Pride and Prejudice, of course, but if I were given another option,
that would undoubtedly be Persuasion.That is why I heartily recommended this novel to Chris, a fellow blogger, who last summer was experiencing the joy of exploring Jane Austen’s world. Of course, since he had many other good reads he had scheduled, it took a while to know his point of view, but he did it at last and the long-awaited review of Persuasion appeared under my WordPress tree on Christmas day.

Only, differently from what I had expected I felt that Chris had not enjoyed that novel much, not as much as Emma, to which he had dedicated three posts. Of course, it was a very neat, professional, interesting review, but I couldn’t feel in any line a shadow of the admiration he had shown for Emma and at the same time, it was as if he couldn’t understand mine (and the many other Persuasion fans who usually comment on his blog).

However, scrolling down the comments, I realized that he had actually understood the root of our fervor, only, being a true Gentleman, he didn’t want to speak his mind frankly. In his very last reply to another blogger , in fact, he hinted at something that sounds like this:”I can see the appeal of Anne as a character for us, ahem, older readers, Helen, compared to the younger Austen heroines like Lizzie, Fanny or Emma. ” Ahem, there he went, ladies, like a dagger in my self-esteem. Everything was clear, that’s why we have enjoyed Persuasion so much, because we are, I can’t say the word, well, let’s put it in this way, a little advanced in years.

Anne Elliot is, of course, the heroine that gives any mature woman hope. She is very much alike the Charlotte Lucas of Pride and Prejudice: plain, modest, accomplished, clever but too old to aspire to a good match with the bliss love. However, differently from Charlotte, Anne doesn’t settle for a Mr Collins; she, unexpectedly, has the occasion to meet again Captain Wentworth, the love of her life, the opportunity she had missed when she was much younger and in her full  bloom.The grown-up Anne has learnt to be less yielding than her younger self and this time she will be able to conquer a much deserved happy ending.

So, if this is true, we have been unmasked, ladies; therefore, when somebody next time asks you, for example, which Jane Austen heroine you would like to be🤔…..what about Lydia Bennet as an answer? 😜

Those Women !

 

 

A lot has been said and written about Mr Darcy and Mr Thornton, as no other character has been able to make vibrate the hearts of so many readers, all I dare say, to such an extent like them.These two men have often been considered quite alike, and not without reasons, in fact, I have to say that more than once, Elizabeth Gaskell seems to wink at Austen’s masterpiece in North and South. However, if we have motives to say that the two male protagonists follow quite the same pattern in the narration, the same cannot be affirmed for their wives-to-be, as they feel and act differently. Once overcome the question of prejudices according to the different settings and situations of the novels, Margaret and Elizabeth will eventually marry their chosen partners, of course, but only when we analyze closely those matches, we do understand how different the nature of the two heroines is.

I have already dealt with Miss Bennet in other posts, but I want to reiterate my interpretation having here the chance to make a comparison between characters.
Let’s start. Why does Elizabeth marry Darcy? For love? Maybe. For money? To be sure. Of course you’ll be turning up your nose at this point howling sacrilege and you would feel like reminding me the touching, explanatory letter that Darcy writes to Lizzy after he had been rejected, as the seed from which the flower of their love will grow and blossom and you would be right, but it is a seed and a very small one if compared to the sight of Pemberley. While visiting the grand house of the man she had so proudly refused, Miss Bennet is all of a sudden haunted by a thought, a fastidious fly that buzzes in her head :”I could have been mistress of all this“. That buzz does not seem to be willing to leave her. In fact, from that moment on, that hateful, disdainful, haughty, proud Mr Darcy will magically appear to her under a different, benign light and Miss Bennet will consent to be more yielding and ready to flirt. Would you call it love? Sort of.  But please, don’t get me wrong, I have the highest regard and even envy for those who manage to marry so well, I just wanted to remark that marrying Darcy with his 10.000 a year and half of Derbyshire, Elizabeth improves her station a lot and love must have found its way eventually, I am sure. The path was smooth after all.

When Margaret reunites to Mr Thornton, the latter is no longer a catch, he has lost everything (but his scowl) . Besides, Margaret in the meanwhile has become rich and has inherited Mr Thorton’s mill and house too, thus making him her insolvent tenant. This downfall reminds me of Jane Eyre’s pattern. Thornton like Mr Rochester must face the humiliation of defeat and loss. When  Margaret and Jane come to their rescue, they will do it as independent women, as even Charlotte Bronte endows her heroine with a fortune, a family and connections as well. They embody somehow a new prototype of woman, a modern character who is allowed to choose freely rather than hope to be chosen to secure status or reputation.Of course, in times when still the only way a woman could achieve a dignified and safe place in society was through marriage, an inheritance was that stroke of luck that loosed her laces and set her free. Free to marry even a man even in reduced cinrumstances like Mr Thorton that, at the time being, will have nothing to offer her but his deepest love and……..his mother’s resentment.

 

The Loss of Innocence

If one the typical characters of Jane Austen’s novels were to leave for any reason
the pampered life of a good, refined but secluded society made of balls, laces,
tittle-tattle, great expectations and shattered dreams to face the world outside,
well, very likely we would be reading one of the novels written by Elizabeth
Gaskell. Margaret Hale, the protagonist of North and South, could be in any way one
of Jane Austen’s most memorable characters : remarkably beautiful, intelligent, well
educated, young and therefore, ready to marry, but the pursue of a good match is
not the central theme here. Her perfect world will be smashed by her father’s sudden
decision to quit the church and move where the “dark satanic mills” have utterly
changed the landscape and the heart of people: the North. In Jane Austen’s books the
North has always been the remote place where the regiment was dislocated and
nothing more. There is never a hint about the profound changes the industrial
revolution was bringing about in the country. The arrival in the Northern town of
Milton will be felt by Margaret and her family as if they had been sunk into a hell
made of noise, dirt and machines. The verdant, peaceful, aristocratic South is only
a painful memory of the heaven they fear to have lost forever.

In the hell of Milton the Thorntons are the most distinguished family, and Mr Thornton is another Mr Darcy, a Darcy of the North, of course: a mill owner whose position has not been secured by breed, but by hard discipline and work .The educated but poor Margaret Hale and the rich but unrefined Mr Thornton are destined to follow the same love pattern of Pride and Prejudice: prejudice and misunderstanding at first, development of affection on both sides with a different degree of awareness, rejected proposal, smoothing of characters to a deserved happy ending. However, the context the two act, is harsher and more tragic than that of Pride and Prejudice. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s world there is pain, desolation, the desperate struggle to survive of the emerging, exploited classes working in mills and the brutal industrial plans of their masters. It is the real world which, nevertheless, allows the growth of genuine, sincere bonds and affections even among members of different classes.There is no time for frivolous deception and seemingly pointless conversation here, there is understanding and mutual support.

Mr Darcy and Mr Thornton share that scowl which actually hides a surprisingly sensitive nature, but Mr Thornton has deeper comprehension of people and himself. If we compare the two proposal scenes, for instance, Mr Darcy has no doubt he will be accepted. He is full of himself, after all, he knows who he is and what a good catch he would be for any girl. Elizabeth’s refusal takes him by surprise. Mr Thornton proposes not only because he is sincerely in love with Margaret, but because he feels bound in honour as Margaret’s coming to his rescue, while he was facing an angry mob, had been generally interpreted as a manifestation of her feelings for him. He knowns she doesn’t love him, that she thinks he is not good enough for her and that he won’t be accepted, even if she is in reduced circumstances. Despite her refusal, he will continue to offer his discreet support to her family in the many times of need.

Margaret’s love for Mr Thornton will grow, despite her initial prejudices, along with the understanding not only of the man but also of the dynamics of that part of the country he embodies. When  Margaret, after a great deal of tragedy, visits the house she was born and bred in the South, the happy and enchanted place of her thoughtless years,  she’ll be unable to revive those emotions that, however, are still vivid in her mind. That heaven like place does not exist any longer, because she’s deeply changed. Life had thrown her into the Blakean world of experience of the North and Helstone represents for her now that innocence she has painfully lost forever.

 

The Road to the Land of Red Onions

 

Rain.How long has it been since it rained the last time? Oh, dear, more than three
months ago. Since that timid, delicate drizzle of May the 19th, we have been
haunted by an incessant, suffocating, dehydrating, I-am-about-to-faint heat. Hence;
it should have been quite natural to choose as destination for the upcoming holidays
some refreshing places such as the Dolomites, Iceland, the Norwegian fjords etc. .
Anybody would have acted that wise, anybody but me. As this year it was my turn to
spot the location and being, honestly, quite fed up with going to the Dolomites, I
deliberately ignored my husband’s imploring eyes and since I am no Heidi, I was
determined, it would have been South, and deep South this time: Tropea, Calabria,

Can you guess, which is mine?

Light luggage and off we went. It is quite a long way, since Tropea is 700 kilometers far from Rome, yet we were particularly looking forward to being finally driving along the famous motorway A3 Salerno – Reggio Calabria. That fame had been earned by the world record waste of money and the prodigious length of time to have it completed: more than 40 years. For such a brilliant record we are mostly indebted to the Calabrian mafia, called N’Drangheta, of course. By the way; I cannot but rejoice by writing that I belong to that lucky generation that may say to have witnessed the end of it, as the motorway was declared eventually terminated only few months ago. After such an effort at the cost of 5.6 million euros per kilometer, what would you have expected it to be like?

Tropea red onion

Well, at that cost I would have supposed to see it supplied with any possible modern
device, Wi-Fi , service stations with jacuzzi and well-trained staff ready to massage your stiff neck after long driving hours and, why not, brass bands with singing festive children throwing rose petals at you at the moment of your departure as sign of gratitude for all the money given away in taxes all these years. That I would have expected. At least. On the contrary, we discovered it to be quite a narrow, neglected motorway. Still. After the first 53 km the three lanes become two and after a while, the emergency lane suddenly disappears never to be seen again, or at least we lost the sight of it. And for what concerns technology, I guess when long
time ago Italian novelist Carlo Levi  entitled his book “Christ stopped at
Eboli“, this choice must have been justified by the fact that right at Eboli, all the radio signals suddenly die out to be picked only intermittently every now and then. As for the service areas, there are just few of them and, as you can imagine, crowed by multitudes of thirsty, hungry people and tired, yelling kids. Nevertheless, after almost 500 km we had to stop, so we resolved to make our way to the bar for a little refreshment, which we did exactly with the same attitude Mr Darcy and Caroline Bingley attended the ball at Longbourn.We quitted as soon as possible, of course. After one hour’s driving when we started to notice stalls with piles of red onions along the way, we understood that our destination was now close.

The crystal clear water of Tropea

I guess you may have understood that Calabria is one of the poorest Italian region with little industrial development . The local control of the Mafia, and the ineffective policies in the course of the past decades have kept this land backward. Even if it is blessed by amazing rocky and sandy costs touched by a clean, blue sea, still tourism is having difficulty in taking off for the lack of adequate tourist facilities but Tropea is one of the few exceptions. At the end of the motorway we truly found our treasure.

The coastal cliff of Tropea

 

 

 

 

 

One of the many charming restaurants in Tropea

 

 

The little town sits on top dramatic coastal cliffs in the gulf of St. Euphemia and the legend says that it was Hercules who, returning from Spain stood on the Coast of Gods and made Tropea one of his ports.    We walked through the charming old town through an incredible maze of lovely lanes, restaurants and cafes till we reached a place where we could experience the most stunning and breathtaking views of the sea and beaches. Here are some pics of the sea:

And at sunset you could also see the island of Stromboli :

Stromboli

And if you feel like having an ice-cream:

We were so glad to see such beauty and organization that we often used many words of deserved praise with the locals and what I loved the most was to hear them proudly say, particularly from young people, that much more can, must be done. It’s the dawn of a new,  substantial change, I’m sure. I heartily wish them so.

A picture of me.