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Put a female statue on a vacant pedestal? An Italian city says not so fast

The sculptures depict illustrious historical
figures with strong ties to this northern Italian city. All 78 of them are of
men. They have stood sentry for centuries. But since 1797, when the French army
invaded, there have been a couple of unoccupied pedestals on the canal.

Just before the new year, two city councillors
proposed a motion to include a statue of 17th-century philosopher Elena Lucrezia
Cornaro Piscopia among those in Prato della Valle.

When it comes to the city’s statuary, Prato
della Valle is “the symbol of historical male predominance,” said Simone
Pillitteri, one of the councillors. “The fact that there were these vacant
spots was a glaring reminder that women are underrepresented here and elsewhere
and that they were marginalised in the past, certainly not put on pedestals.”

Including a statue of Cornaro Piscopia — the
first woman in the world to graduate with a university degree, obtained at the
University of Padua in philosophy in 1678 — would be a strong sign that “today,
our culture has completely changed,” Pillitteri said. “It would be a sign for
the future.”

That simple proposal has spawned a debate over
cancel culture, male chauvinism in the 18th century, the underrepresentation of
women in art and the historical significance of monuments.

Academics, politicians and feminists have
weighed in. Critics have cited the findings of a 2021 report by a cultural
heritage association that counted barely 200 statues of women in public spaces
in Italy. A head count of male statuary in Italy does not exist, but a useful
comparison might be found among the 229 busts on Rome’s Pincian Hill. Only
three depict women.

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Some commentators saw the proposal as an
example of “cancel culture,” an attempt to rewrite history through the lens of
contemporary gender equality. For other opponents, the debate has centred upon
the inviolability of a historical monument.

“Like it or not, Prato della Valle is an
expression of the past,” one in which it was acceptable for a monument of
illustrious locals to be all male, said David Tramarin, a local politician and
art historian. “We must learn from the past, not change it.”

Tramarin said that adding a statue of a woman
to the all-male monument felt more like an afterthought. He suggested instead
installing several female statues in a centrally located park now under
development. “Let’s define a new space and look to the future. A space with
many women would be interesting and unique in Italy,” he said.

To be fair, Prato della Valle does have a
female figure — a bust of 16th-century poet Gaspara Stampa — but it is
relegated to a spot at the feet of the statue of Renaissance sculptor Andrea
Briosco. The other statues depict popes, notable admirals and physicians but
also celebrated Italians who taught at the university, like Galileo.

Rosanna Carrieri, a spokesperson for Mi
Riconosci, the association of cultural heritage professionals that worked on
the 2021 report and is still counting statues, noted that although women were
increasingly represented in public spaces, the iconography often showcased
stereotypes. She cited a statue of a nude washerwoman in Bologna dating to 2001
as well as a statue of a scantily clad gleaner unveiled last year. “They are symptomatic
of a problem of representation, of how women continue to be considered,” she
said.

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Daniela Mapelli, rector of the University of
Padua, said the issue was less about “which statue or which woman to honour,
but to invert the tendency and give greater recognition to the role of women in
society.” She added, “Even in 2022, this is an issue that struggles to come to
the fore.”

Last year, Mapelli made history herself,
becoming the first woman to guide the university in 800 years and one of only
eight female rectors at Italy’s more than 80 universities.

She noted that the University of Padua already
had a statue of Piscopia “prominently located” in its main building.

Of late, Padua’s municipal committee, tasked
with the city’s new place names, has been giving a lot of thought to “balancing
a very strong historical imbalance when it comes to the female presence in
streets and piazzas,” said Carlo Fumian, a history professor at the University
of Padua who is on the committee.

But a proposal to name roundabouts after women
had been deemed “not noble enough.” The idea of changing the name of existing
streets “risked putting citizens on the warpath” because of lost mail and other
possible problems.

Fumian said that Prato della Valle, which was
commissioned in 1775, reflects a specific moment in the city’s past and that
even the vacant pedestals, once adorned by statues of Venetian doges that the
French army destroyed in 1797, “are a piece of Padua’s history.”

“You can’t rewrite history with a hammer or
scalpel,” he said. “It’s a grave cultural error.” Better to place a placard
next to a vacant pedestal and explain why it is vacant.

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Margherita Colonnello, the other city
councillor who drafted the motion, said its intent was not to “pervert or
destroy” the Prato della Valle monument “but to add something new, something
the represents present-day history where women play a prominent role,” she
said.

The “enormous reaction to the proposal” was
unexpected, she said. It reflected the reality that while things were changing
in Italy, there still remained “some conservative intellectuals” who did not
understand the importance of discussing the underrepresentation of “half the
population.”

The motion will be discussed in City Hall
later this month, she said.

Pillitteri, the city councillor, pointed out
that the University of Padua would be celebrating its 800th anniversary this
year, led by a female rector. “It would be great to mark the event with a new
statue of a woman,” and why not, he said, “with some debate.”

©2022 The New York Times Company.

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