Perhaps the most memorable moment of any Vassar tour is when the guide brings visitors into the Thompson Memorial Library to see the stunning central stained-glass window depicting Lady Elena Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to earn a doctorate in European history, defending her thesis to an enraptured audience of formerly skeptical male scholars. However, even students who pass by the window on a daily basis may be unaware of the story of the central figure depicted in this iconic emblem of Vassar’s campus. On Friday, Nov. 9, the Frederick Ferris Thompson Memorial Library will present a celebration of the 340th anniversary of Cornaro’s commencement that seeks to explore her life beyond her landmark intellectual achievement. This event is sponsored by Creative Arts Across Disciplines (CAAD), The Italian Studies Department and Vassar College Libraries.
The evening will begin with a lecture by Professor Patrizia Bettella of the University of Alberta in the Class on 1951 Reading Room at 5:30 p.m. Bettella recently published the article “Women and the Academies in Seventeenth-Century Italy: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia’s Role in Literary Academies” (Italian Culture, 03.19.2018). After an intermission with refreshments offered by the Alumnae/i House, Kairos Italy Theater will perform “The Most Learned Woman,” an original theater piece developed by Kairos artistic director and actress Laura Caparrotti. The night will conclude with complementary gelato. Both the lecture and performance are free and open to the public.
The event is in many ways a celebration of Vassar’s historic role in furthering higher education for women. Director of the Vassar College Libraries Andrew Ashton stated, “The Cornaro Window is sort of the iconic center of the library…but it has a lot of historic and symbolic significance as well. At the time that the window was installed in 1906, Vassar was still an all-women’s college and was really trying to set itself apart from other colleges in that it wanted to be a great institution of learning, and so the window has always been a centerpiece of campus in a way, aside from being beautiful and historically significant.”
The sensational achievement the window portrays has provided Vassar scholars with intellectual inspiration since its completion in 1907. However, Associate Professor of Italian Eugenio L. Giusti argued, “This woman is not very well publicized. I ask my students sometimes, ‘Who is the woman on the stained glass?’ and they say that they don’t know.” Giusti believes the event to be a valuable opportunity to change this apathy, explaining, “I feel like it’s important for the beauty of the library, the achievement of this woman and the fact that we are at Vassar to put as much emphasis as possible on the history of this character…[so] we can put her on the pedestal that she deserves.”
The story of the event is a protracted one—it is the result of years of preparation. Some time ago, an Italian actress named Lucia Schierano contacted Vassar, as she knew about its stained-glass window depicting Cornaro. She had produced a theatrical piece on Cornaro’s life and wanted to perform the work on Vassar’s campus. However, Schierano did not speak English, which prevented her from being able to translate the play. Due to the language barrier, Vassar directed the project to the Italian Department.
Rather than restricting the event to Poughkeepsie’s limited Italian-speaking community, the department decided to ask New York City-based theater group Kairos Italy Theater if its members would be interested in adapting Schierano’s piece. Capparotti was interested in Schierano’s work but wished to adapt the piece with her own artistic vision.
Kairos Italy Theater’s rendition of Cornaro’s story features Capparotti as the only actor, playing the characters of Cornaro, her father and her tutors. Despite portraying Cornaro in the play, Capparotti chose to speak of the protagonist in the third person rather than the first person, adopting the voice of a narrator. Cornaro’s thoughts and feelings are then represented by a violin, which gives musical voice to her emotions.
Capparotti wanted to focus her work not only on Cornaro’s academic accomplishments, but also on her vibrant inner world. She explained: “I spoke with Lucia two years ago, and then I wanted to really read everything and really connect with Elena. I’m trying to show this side of her—what she really felt inside. Of course, we’re talking about a woman in 1600—we have to suppose who she was from books. All her material was destroyed because she gave orders to destroy everything she had written.”
This wish to present authentic insight into Cornaro’s spirit is evident in the play’s two main themes: “One is what her father gave her the possibility to do against everything that was taught and told at the time,” Capparotti explained. “[The other] is how much she was able to achieve thanks to that, and why she was able to achieve it. She was really a prodigy, but she also had this sacred fire for religion and spirituality that carried her on until she died.”
The play explores this religious aspect of Cornaro’s life extensively. Discussing the motivation for this focus, Capparotti explained, “it’s interesting because in a way, everything you read about her shows this spirituality, because it is really a big part of her. When I started to read about Elena, I found it interesting that her studying was not so much a desire for knowledge, but more a desire to dedicate herself to God.”
The play is unusual in that it takes place in the library, a location rarely utilized for performances. While the library has historically been limited to academic endeavors, Ashton is seeking to expand its role on campus.
Ashton articulated his vision for the future of the library, explaining, “We have really been wanting to do more in the library beyond just providing books and a good place to study. We’ve been holding a lot of events and we like to think of the library as the intellectual hub on campus; people come here to do all kinds of things that hopefully enhance their experience of Vassar.” Ashton found this event to be demonstrative of this concept: “The idea of having this play about Lady Cornaro under the window on a Friday night just sounded like a great combination of everything we’re interested in doing … It would be a shame to do [the play] in any other place.”
Interdisciplinary Arts Coordinator Tom Pacio believes the event to be representative of the evolving role of the library on campus. Pacio praised Ashton’s tenure: “I’m just impressed by how, through Andy’s vision, the library has been opened up in the way that there’s other programming in it. There’s just an openness of the library that is pretty inspiring. And I think that this is an appropriate celebration of this space and how it’s being used in more creative ways. I think it’s an exciting space to activate on campus.”
The library will play a vital role in the “The Most Learned Woman”; Capparotti affirmed that the play’s last four words will reference the Cornaro Window itself. Giusti assured an enlightening show: “The play will show that the glorious moment of her graduation was not all that she did. She was a much more complex figure than just being an excellent intellectual person.” Giusti went on to describe Cornaro’s elusive side, explaining, “It was all mysticism and a more emotional component, religion, and connecting with the knowledge of philosophy and history and languages, and this is what makes Elena such an interesting character to me.” Bettella’s lecture and “The Most Learned Woman” are sure to delve into these fascinating yet relatively unknown components of Cornaro’s life and provide the community with a greater appreciation of the library’s dazzling centerpiece.