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Sunday, January 23, 2022

Row over statue commemorating 17th-century woman scholar raises important question about remembering

In Italy, a debate is raging around a proposed statue in the country’s largest public square.

By: Editorial |
Updated: January 5, 2022 9:36:29 am
In Italy, a debate is raging around a proposed statue in the country’s largest public square.

The histories of nations and institutions are filled with injustice: Women couldn’t vote for very long; “divine right” was seen as a genuine basis of political legitimacy; slavery, untouchability and colonialism were deemed acceptable. In contemporary times, the desire to do something to correct some of these injustices in public life and spaces, is understandable. In Italy, a debate is raging around a proposed statue in the country’s largest public square.

In 1678, Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia received a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Padua, the first woman to achieve this feat. Yet, she was not included among the list of 88 scholars and luminaries in whose honour statues were erected in Padua square in the 18th century. Local leaders want to correct this error and erect a statue in her honour on an empty pedestal — some structures in the square were destroyed during Napoleon’s invasion of Italy.

The arguments against the statue from other locals are familiar: There is already a statue of Piscopia at the university; “playing” with culturally-significant sites is dangerous; it is more important to place the exclusion in historical context and learn from it. A new statue, of a woman, among her 17th-century contemporaries is indeed out of place. Or perhaps that is why, in 2022, it is much-needed. This is not to say that there shouldn’t be information about why Piscopia was denied, thus far, her place in the Venetian sun — the context that is needed is not for her presence but her absence for all these centuries. Is it necessary to preserve history in all its authenticity, or is it more important to recognise that it is being made and re-made every day, is the question.

This editorial first appeared in the print edition on January 5, 2021 under the title ‘Her place in the sun’.

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