Encyclopedia of Early Modern Philosophy and the Sciences

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Agnesi, Maria Gaetana

  • Sara SestiEmail author
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-20791-9_431-1

Related Topics

Mathematician Science popularizer Philanthropist 


Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718–1799), Italian mathematician well known and renowned in most of Europe, puts order among different treatises on infinitesimal calculus and publishes what becomes the reference manual for scholars of mathematical analysis; on reaching fame, she gave up academic honors and appointments and devotes all her remaining life to charitable work (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

“Maria Gaetana Agnesi”. (Sesti and Moro (2018), Scienziate nel tempo. 100 biografie, Milano, Ledizioni)

Infant Prodigy

Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan, on May 16, 1718, in a wealthy family of silk merchants. She was the third of 21 children born to her father Pietro (1690–1752) of three wives, two of whom died in childbirth. Still a child, she appears to have a talent for studies, and her father plans to use her brilliant mind and her learning as a wonder to show off and enter into aristocratic circles. So Maria Gaetana learns Latin, Greek, French, English, German, and Hebrew; nicknamed “seven-tongue oracle,” she is paraded in her house’s halls, where some Lombard representatives of the Enlightenment pay frequent visits. Aged 9, Maria Gaetana astonishes the guests by translating into Latin an oration written by her tutor in support of women education, a cause she will firmly uphold all her life. Her education proceeds with the best private teachers; she studies philosophy, ethics, and physics. In 1738, she publishes a collection of 191 “Propositiones philosophicae” [Philosophical propositions], a summary of the researches carried out till that moment, which are debated in front of illustrious guests coming from all Europe. In the same time grows stronger in the young girl her mystical inclination, she devotes herself more and more to meditation and spiritual life. Maria Gaetana expresses to her father her wish to enter a convent, but he adamantly refuses his consent, her presence being necessary for tutoring her many siblings.

An Effective Popularizer of Scientific Topics

After studying philosophy, the young Maria Gaetana devotes herself to mathematics, particularly to the study of the most difficult problem of her times: the infinitesimal calculus, which had been introduced independently by Leibniz in 1684 and Newton in 1687, and so had evolved along two different lines, amid heated debate. In 1740, under the guidance of father Ramiro Rampinelli (1697–1759), professor of mathematics at the Padua University, Maria Gaetana tackles the works by Charles-Réné Reyneau (1656–1728), Guido Grandi (1671–1742), and Gabriele Manfredi (1681–1761), in the same time getting in touch with some Italian mathematicians who deal with infinitesimal calculus, in particular with count Jacopo Riccati (1676–1754) (Fig. 2).
Fig. 2

Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth. (Sesti and Moro (2018), Scienziate nel tempo. 100 biografie, Milano, Ledizioni)

The result of her commitment – and her entertainment too, as she makes clear – are the Instituzioni Analitiche ad Uso della Gioventù Italiana [Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth], two volumes amounting to over a thousand pages, published in 1748 and richly illustrated; here Maria Gaetana not only translates the works of her contemporaries but merges different expressions and the underlying schemes of thinking. That is the first mathematics handbook published by a woman; its style is simple and clear, and it is written in Italian, breaking the tradition that still wanted all manuals written in Latin. The treatise, explaining algebra and Cartesian geometry in the first volume and infinitesimal calculus in the second, is translated into French and English and becomes a reference for all European scholars, since of all topics it gives an account full and detailed yet simple and suitable for beginners. Among the curves with which Agnesi deals, the “versiera” linked to her name is still a subject of study. Already analyzed by such a mathematician as Pierre Fermat (1601–1665), it can be expressed by a cubic rational function (x2y + 4a2y − 8a3 = 0) and represented as a bell curve, which can be constructed through some simple geometric processes. In English literature this curve is called “witch of Agnesi,” a curious name which likely derives from a misleading interpretation of the term “versiera” (“versed sine curve,” from the Latin vertere, “to turn”) as “avversiera” (“witch” or “wife of the devil”) by John Colson (1680–1760), the Cambridge mathematician who first translated the manual (Fig. 3).
Fig. 3

Witch of Agnesi. (Sesti and Moro (2018), Scienziate nel tempo. 100 biografie, Milano, Ledizioni)

A Passionate Philanthropist

With the success of her handbook, Agnesi attains fame and honors. Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, to whom the work is dedicated, thanks her with a rich gift of diamonds. Pope Benedictus XIV in 1750 appoints her to the chair of mathematics at Bologna; Maria Gaetana accepts but will never serve. After the death of her father in 1752, she gives up all scientific studies to devote herself completely to charitable work, theology, and meditation, her long-cherished purpose in life. She sells all her possessions, leaves the old mansion of her family, and moves to the Ospedale Maggiore, to look after the poor and sick. In 1771, the archbishop of Milan, cardinal Pozzobonelli (1696–1783), asks her to become the director of the women ward of the Opera Pia Trivulzio, a home in Milan for elderly poor active to this day. She served with the utmost dedication until her death on January 9, 1799, aged 80. In her last will, she asks to be buried in a common grave.



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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Libera Università delle DonneMilanItaly

Section editors and affiliations

  • Ruth Hagengruber
    • 1
  1. 1.Institut für Humanwissenschaften, PhilosophieUniversität PaderbornPaderbornDeutschland