Controversy in Italy over the proposal to dedicate a monument to a philosopher

In the Prato della Valle square in the Italian city of Padua, 78 statues surround the canal which creates a green island in the center. It is an elliptical square of 90,000 square meters, the largest in Italy and one of the largest in Europe. Among the figures that adorn it are the sculptor Antonio Canova, the historian Tito Livio, Galileo Galilei, several pontiffs or the politician Andrea Memmo, who erected the monumental complex in the 18th century. None of the 78 sculptures is directed towards a woman.

That could soon change. In Italy, a fierce debate erupted over the presence of women in public spaces after two Padua councilors fought to dedicate a statue in the square to Elena Cornaro Piscopia, a Venetian philosopher who in 1678 became the first female titular of a university degree in the world.

All the 78 statues in the Prato della Valle square are of men linked to the city of Padua

“We may not know that the subjects to whom the effigies are dedicated are all, without exception, men,” read the motion, presented by centre-left elected officials at the end of December. Originally, in the square, there were 88 statues of eminent personalities of Padua or with a connection with the city, but ten of them, dedicated to the Venetian doges, were destroyed by the Napoleonic army. Obelisks were erected in their place except on two pedestals, which remained empty. The only female figure in Prato de la Valle is a bust of the poet Gaspara Stampa, relegated to the feet of the sculptor Andrea Briosco.

It is on one of these two empty pedestals that they would like to erect the statue in honor of Cornaro Piscopia, who spoke Greek and Latin at the age of seven. The illegitimate daughter of a Venetian public prosecutor – a very high position – she takes advantage of her privileges to study. Something that, as the motion points out, “has opened the door to a path that today sees, in the university, the same quota of graduates, in certain subjects higher than that of their peers”. It is the same University of Padua that last year elected Daniela Mapelli as its first rector in its 800-year history.

Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia

Sepia time

The proposal came after Mi Riconosci, an association of professionals in the cultural sector, carried out a census in Italy and realized that of all the statues in the country, except for religious or mythological figures, only 200 are dedicated to women. For example, Milan did not have a statue dedicated to a woman until last year, when the effigy of Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso, intellectual and protagonist of the Unification, was inaugurated.

“When the project for the Prato della Valle square was carried out, the only condition was that the statues be dedicated to people related to Padua, there was no veto against women”, defends the historian of the art Federica Arcoraci, of this association. The idea of ​​counting the statues was born following the controversy generated by a statue in Sapri, in the south of the country, which represented in a sexualized way a famous gleaner, protagonist of a poem by Luigi Mercantini.

But not everyone agrees with the idea of ​​including a female figure in the square of Padua. Some historians argue that the two empty pedestals should remain empty precisely to recall the passage of Napoleon’s army and consider that the inclusion of a modern sculpture would go against the historical context of The Prato , as this place is known. “Making history with toponymy and moving monuments as if they were Lego is a dangerous game,” said contemporary history professor Carlo Fumian, who offers to visit the statue of the philosopher Cornaro Piscopia in the university’s Aula Magna.

Eventually, and after heavy media pressure, the city council approved the motion, but with some significant amendments. In the accepted text, they undertake to raise a statue dedicated to a woman in the historic center – who would not have to be the first to obtain a doctorate – but, “in the event that it is not possible to use the two empty plinths of Prato, for historical and guardianship reasons, will find another place in the square or in the historic center”. Something feminists see as a defeat, as it doesn’t force the use of pedestals. “There will still be no statue of a woman and 78 of men – laments Arcoraci -, but at least we have raised awareness of the lack of female representation in monuments”.

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