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Opinion – Italian art must acknowledge its powerful women

The proposed erection of a statue celebrating the world’s first woman to get a PhD has sparked backlash across Italy. Should society still be allowed to debate the creation of art that salutes the female gender?

In 1678, Elena Cornaro Piscopia became the first-ever woman to receive a PhD. In 1776, the city of Padua, where she had lived and died, decided to erect 88 statues of all its important, historical figures.

But Piscopia was never included in these plans. In fact, of the 88 statues built for Padua’s 90,000-square-metre Prato della Valle, not a single one was dedicated to a woman.

This month, and centuries later, two local councillors decided it was time this changed. Erecting a statue of Piscopia would be the first step.

Unfortunately, not everyone agreed. History professor Carlo Fumian at the University of Padua said the statue would be ‘out of context’ with the square’s history and the ‘expensive and bizarre’ idea was ‘trendy, but culturally inconsistent’.

Another historian – Davide Tramarin – added the empty pedestals upon which they would erect new statues should stay empty. These represent a symbol of historical destruction by Napoleon’s troops, he noted. Historians weren’t alone, detractors from far and wide found the idea culturally ‘inappropriate’.

Why did the erection of this statue receive such horror and rejection?

‘With the exception of paintings and sculptures dedicated to monarchs and wealthy nobility, the image of the woman is used as a decorative motif, an object intended for the male gaze, often sexualised and rarely given a mind of her own,’ says art history masters student Alice Spadini.

‘We see very few women because, historically, there have been very few women in positions of power who have achieved great renown – or have been recognised and rewarded for it,’ the 21-year-old Italian adds.

Ahead of this proposed new statue, cultural heritage association Mi Riconosci revealed that of all the statues erected in Italy’s public spaces, only 148 are dedicated to women.

In the past, women were given a ‘very different set of rules’, Spadini explains. Making a name for yourself in your chosen field was a lot harder. Of course, exceptions exist, but those achievements will have been ‘swept under the rug’ by a patriarchal society who felt threatened by women’s successes, ‘the inferior sex’, she adds.

There are countless women throughout Italian history that did have fame, power and money. One of them is Artemisia Gentileschi, born in 1593, who was one of the few female artists of her time to reach international renown and make a living with her paintings.

The Italian Baroque painter was also the first to be admitted to the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence – her paintings often depict women from myths and allegories, telling stories of victims, fighters and survivors, says Spadini.

To the 21-year-old, she represents ‘strength’ and ‘resilience’, especially after she was raped by painter Agostino Tassi and underwent an infamous trial.

‘A statue of her would celebrate her impressive successes and powerful character, providing a symbol of feminine strength and perseverance in the face of adversity,’ she adds.

Spadini believes women aren’t the only group blatantly missing from Italy’s rich, yet uniform, art and culture. Immigrants and a large proportion of Italians descending from generations of past immigrants are ‘seriously underrepresented’ in the arts.

‘It’s time we acknowledge the significance and importance of these communities in forming Italy as the country it is today, and give credit to the contributions they’ve made despite often finding themselves in less-than accommodating circumstances.’

Outside Italy, art sometimes feels like it is a few steps ahead. In New York, for example, anonymous artist group Guerrilla Girls has been producing works that bring gender and racial inequality to the forefront, often in the form of posters of surprise exhibitions.

Spadini believes the group, which has been active since 1985, is one of many examples of how the growing wave of feminism has been reflected in artistic expression, shaping the way artists communicate with their audiences and informing the messages they choose to convey.

While Italy is not the only country that loves to adore its past and find strength in its traditions, it is particularly passionate about preserving its cultural heritage. The country even has several laws in place protecting its statues, cathedrals and other artefacts.

Spadini adds that some historians strongly believe artefacts and monuments need to be maintained exactly as they were when they were made, ignoring how they might clash with the developments of modern society and culture.

With Piscopia, it may not be that people against the erection of her new statue are opposed to statues of women, says Spadini. ‘But they might not believe it’s a priority.’


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