5 Extraordinary Italians You’ve Never Heard Of

You've probably heard of Christopher Columbus, but have you ever heard of Amerigo Vespucci, the man America is named for?

Throughout history, Italians have done incredible things. They have discovered new lands, made advances in medical procedures, and created stunning artwork that has stood the test of time. People like Maria Montessori and Leonardo Da Vinci are some of the more recognizable figures, but did you know America got its name from an Italian? Or that the first woman to earn a University degree was Italian? Here are five impressive Italians you’ve probably never heard of. 

1. Hortensia, The First Female Lawyer

Middle Ages Rendition of Hortensia’s Speech


Hortensia is known as the first female lawyer because of her impressive argument against the taxing of women’s properties to fund the war effort. The plan was to tax the properties of 1,400 rich Roman women. At the Roman Forum, Hortensia spoke out against the tax by stating women shouldn’t pay for a war they didn’t ask for and couldn’t take part in. Though she didn’t manage to abolish the property tax plan, it was altered to only tax the properties of 400 women, and the tax was extended to men as well.

2. Amerigo Vespucci, The Man Who America Is Named For

Amerigo Vespucci

Amerigo Vespucci was an Italian explorer who believed the lands Christopher Columbus had sailed to in 1492 was a separate continent. Before Vespucci’s voyages, the general public assumed the new lands were part of Asia. His first voyage took place sometime between 1496 and 1499 when he sailed through the Northern part of South America into the Amazon River. Vespucci noted various landmarks were unlike what had been described in writings about Asia’s landscape. He confirmed his suspicions by sailing to the southern tip of South America, which extends further south than Asia. Sometime in 1507, German clergyman and cartographer Martin Waldseemüller created a map of the southern continent and named it America in honor of Vespucci’s work. 

3. Elena Cornaro: First Woman in the World to Receive a University Degree

Elena Cornaro Piscopia


Elena Cornaro was a woman of determination and ambition. She was born in 1646 in Venice to a wealthy nobleman and a peasant. Though the couple was not married, this situation in no way appeared to inhibit Cornaro’s future success.  At 7-years-old, a local priest took notice of the child’s aptitude and encouraged her father to give her lessons in Greek and Latin. Cornaro excelled at both and later went on to study French, Spanish, mathematics, astronomy, and theology. She was invited into several scholarly societies and even became the president of the Venetian Academy of the Peaceful. Later, Cornaro tutor petitioned the Bishop of Padua to grant her the degree of doctor of theology. The bishop refused because she was a woman, but allowed her to pursue a degree in philosophy instead. She earned that degree on June 25, 1678. 

4. Giosué Carducci: the First Italian Nobel Prize Winner

Giosué Carducci


Born in a small town near Pisa, Giosué Carducci was an avid learner who studied the works of Dante, Tasso, and Alfieri. Carducci was a man of many talents, he served as the chair of Italian Literature at the University of Bologna, wrote famous speeches, and served in the Senate in 1890. However, Carducci’s most notable achievement came from his poetry. He began writing poetry early on in life, often finding inspiration in his studies of classical poets as well as his modern-day surroundings. Carducci’s poetry is said to have inspired Italians during the war of Italian unification. He won the 1906 Nobel Prize for Literature because of ‘his deep critical research, for the freshness of style, and for the lyrical strength that characterizes most of his masterpieces.’

5. Trota De Ruggiero: The World’s First Female Gynecologist

Trota of Salerno


Trota De Ruggiero was a remarkable woman for the Middle Ages. Living in Salerno, Trota worked as a doctor and is thought to have been the first female professor of medicine on top of the world’s first female gynecologist. Not much is known about her life, but many of her medical writings still exist. She wrote a comprehensive essay on women’s health which, included the suggestion of painkiller usage during childbirth. This directly contradicted the Church’s stance at the time that it was God’s will. One can only imagine how often these two parties came into conflict. She also wrote about treatments for other ailments like snake bites and bad breath. 


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