Agnesi, Maria Gaetana
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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.
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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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