Italy confronts its history as it debates installing a female statue amid old male fixtures

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When Padua city councilor Margherita Colonnello was in high school, she learned that among the 78 towering marble statues of illustrious locals and others – popes and Galileo among them – that lined the magnificent Prato della Valle de his city, was one of a beloved woman of the sixteenth century. poet, Gaspara Stampa.

When Colonnello went to the square to find the poet, however, she says her heart sank.

“She was just a little head-to-toe sculptor Andrea Briosco,” she said, “there to show what a great sculptor he was.”

Colonnello, 29, is now trying to address the lack of female inclusion among the statues in the square – a move that is meeting local resistance and has sparked a national debate over historic preservation and gender representation in monuments.

Last month, Colonnello and fellow city councilor Simone Pillitteri, with the backing of a group of cultural heritage workers, proposed placing on a pedestal – left vacant after Napoleon’s troops toppled some statues in 1797 – the statue of another notable woman from Padua’s past: Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia.

A statue of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the world’s first woman to graduate from university, sits at the bottom of a staircase in the University of Padua. She and other prominent women of Padua were excluded during the construction of the Prato della Valle square at the end of the 18th century. (Gustav Hofer)

Cornaro Piscopia, an intellectual prodigy, was the first woman in the world to graduate from university, with a doctorate in philosophy in 1678. But when the Prato della Valle square was built 100 years after her death, she and other women prominent figures in Padua’s history have been excluded from the pantheon of local heroes.

A smaller statue of her, the only one in Italy, sits at the bottom of a dimly lit staircase in the nearby University of Padua.

Italy has around 200 public statues of women

This year the university, the third oldest in the world, celebrates its 800th anniversary and, for the first time, it has a female rector – another reason, according to Colonnello, it is a good time to put Cornaro Piscopia in a prominent public place.

“Women are so important, they finally have their place,” she said. “So what’s the problem with representing that? It’s our present.”

The shortage of female statues is not unique to Padua. The first-ever survey of female monuments in Italy, conducted in December 2021 by Mi Riconosci, an association of heritage workers, found that only around 200 female statues stand in public places across Italy. The vast majority are rendered by male artists.

“That may explain why most of these statues are beautiful and young… [and] quite sexualized,” said Francesca Tomei, archaeologist at Mi Riconosci.

The bronze sculpture of La Spigolatrice di Sapri (The Gleaner of Sapri) was unveiled in September 2021 in Sapri, Italy. The sculpture sparked national outrage and accusations of sexism by critics who said it looked more like a starlet than a woman working in the fields. (Valentino Palermo/Associated Press)

As a recent example, she cites the statue of The Spigolatrix of Sapri (The Gleaner of Sapri) – someone who picks up bits of grain after harvest – who looks more like a wet T-shirt contestant than a farmhand. Unveiled in September 2021 by former Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte in the southwestern Italian town of Sapri, it sparked national outrage and prompted Mi Riconosci to launch his investigation.

Yet despite the fact that the proposal in Padua is to add a statue, not remove one, academics and politicians have called the offer “a culture undo”.

Proposal to add a “superficial” female statue

Carlo Fumian, professor of contemporary history at the University of Padua, opposes the proposal, calling it “superficial” and “more of a whim” than a well-considered idea.

He agrees with Mi Riconosci that Padua and Italy have a problem with the lack of female representation in monuments and street names. And as a member of a city commission tasked with suggesting names for new public spaces and streets, Fumian says naming them after notable women is the commission’s top priority.

Carlo Fumian, professor of contemporary history at the University of Padua, walks along Prato della Valle. While he says Padua and Italy have a problem with the lack of female representation in monuments, he objects to placing a statue of Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia on an empty pedestal in the piazza. (Gustav Hofer)

But he says placing a statue of Cornaro Piscopia on one of the plinths in the square – which Padua left empty to mark Napoleon’s invasion and the end of the millenary Venetian Republic – would distort history by erasing the destruction by Napoleon original statues.

“It’s not back to the future, where you put banana peels in a time machine and go back in time to change it for repair,” he said. “It’s quite dangerous to play a game with statues… to destroy or build something. You have to explain the monuments… you have to explain why it’s empty, not just put a copy of a statue that we already have at the University.”

But the argument that the empty pedestal in the park is historically significant doesn’t hold water with the members of Mi Riconosci.

“For this square to be a historical witness of something, people have to know exactly what it is, and they don’t,” said local archaeologist and cultural writer Leonardo Bison. “It’s a very used public space that’s evolving. That doesn’t mean you have to make changes to the monuments. But that means you can’t say it’s a fixed space, crystallized in a historic moment.”

Seventy-eight imposing marble statues of illustrious locals line Padua’s beautiful Prato della Valle square. The shortage of female statues is not unique to the city, with a recent study finding that only 200 statues of women stand in public places across Italy. (Megan Williams/CBC)

Bison, who was completing a doctorate in history in Bristol when the statue of slave trader Edward Colston was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest, says the event led to an awareness of the cultural power of monuments. But his colleagues in Italy, he says, were shocked.

“[They] judged it as a so-called cancel culture, as an attempt to erase history,” he said. “They were saying, ‘They’re going to try to tear down all the fascist-era buildings , even the Colosseum, which was built with slave labor!’ which, of course, did not happen.”

‘Several important women of Padua’

Bison and other cultural workers say Italy has a different relationship with its monuments than one finds in Britain and North America. Anything over 70 years old is protected by cultural heritage laws, and although Italy has colonial monuments, the country has had few problems with restitution.

The country still grapples with its fascist heritage and monuments and has controversial statues, such as that of Christopher Columbus, but these are not officially celebrated by the state or any community and are therefore not sites of social conflict, he said.

Yet if Italians want to talk about cancellation culture, members of Mi Riconosci say they need look no further than Prato della Valle today, with 10 of the original Venetian doge statues ‘cancelled’ by Napoleon in 1799 – with what Bison calls the particularly pronounced patriarchal culture of the late 18th and early 19th centuries that ignored the achievements of women.

“You often hear people justify the lack of female statues here by saying that before the 19th century there were no significant women,” he said. “But there are several important Paduan women who were famous throughout Europe but are not here.”

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