16 May 2020

Maria Gaetana Agnesi – mathematician

Brilliant scholar gave her time and money to the poor


Maria Gaetana Agnesi learned seven languages by the age of 11
Maria Gaetana Agnesi learned
seven languages by the age of 11
Maria Gaetana Agnesi, the first woman to write a mathematics handbook, was born on this day in 1718 in Milan.

Maria became a mathematician, philosopher, theologian and humanitarian and was also the first woman to be appointed as a mathematics professor at a university.

She was one of at least 21 children born to Pietro Agnesi, a wealthy man whose family had made their money from silk production. Her mother was his first wife, Anna Fortunato Brivio, who was from a noble Milanese family.

Maria was soon recognised as a child prodigy, who could speak Italian and French by the time she was five and had learnt Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German and Latin by the time she was 11.

When she became ill at the age of 12, it was thought to have been because of excessive studying and reading, but after she was prescribed vigorous dancing and horse riding to improve her health, she suffered convulsions and was then advised to moderate her activities.

By the time Maria was 14 she was studying ballistics and geometry. Her father regularly invited learned men to his house to listen to her read and to discuss philosophical questions with her.

The cover page of Agnesi's Instituzioni  analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana
The cover page of Agnesi's Instituzioni
 analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana
After Maria’s mother died, her father remarried twice and Maria was given the task of teaching all her siblings and half-siblings.

This stopped her from fulfilling her wish to enter a convent.  Instead, her father agreed to let her live away from society and devote herself to the study of mathematics.

In 1740 she began studying differential and integral calculus with esteemed Italian mathematician Ramiro Rampinelli.

By 1748 Maria had published her Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana. She said this was to give a systematic illustration of the different results and theorems of infinitesimal calculus. The work was translated into French and English and Maria received letters and gifts from the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa and Pope Benedict XIV.

In the book, Maria discusses a curve that had been studied earlier by the mathematician Luigi Guido Grandi. He had called the curve ‘versoria,’ the Latin word for a rope that turns a sail, because that is what it reminded him of.  This was mistranslated as the word ‘witch’ in the English version and so the curve became known as ‘The Witch of Agnesi’.

The bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi at the Palazzo di Brera in Milan
The bust of  Agnesi at the
Palazzo di Brera in Milan
In 1750 Pope Benedict XIV appointed Maria to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics at Bologna University, although she never actually taught there. She was the second woman in the world to be granted a professorship at a university, Laura Bassi, an Italian physicist being the first.

After the death of her father in 1752, Maria finally had the chance to study theology. She then worked with the poor, sick and homeless, founding a home for the elderly in Milan, where she went to live.

In January 1799, Maria Gaetana Agnesi died at the age of 80. She was buried in a mass grave for the poor along with 15 other bodies.

An asteroid, 16765 Agnesi, a crater on Venus and a brandy are all named after her, as well as the mathematical curve, the Witch of Agnesi.

The Villa Agnesi Albertoni at Montevecchia in the province of Lecco, where Maria and her family spent the summer
The Villa Agnesi Albertoni at Montevecchia in the province
of Lecco, where Maria and her family spent the summer
Travel tip:

You can visit the Villa Agnesi Albertoni, where Maria and her family spent time during the summer, which is in Largo Maria Gaetana Agnesi at Montevecchia in the province of Lecco, about 30 kilometres (19 miles) northeast of Milan. The villa has been preserved in the rococo style in which it was built during the 17th century. Visitors can still see the ‘salotto’, where eminent visitors would discuss philosophy with Maria Gaetana Agnesi and hear one of her sisters, Maria Teresa Agnesi play her own compositions on the harpsichord.

The famous Archiginnasio, the  university's anatomical theatre
The famous Archiginnasio, the
university's anatomical theatre
Travel tip:

Bologna University, where Maria Gaetana Agnesi was the first woman to be appointed as a mathematics professor, was founded in 1088, making it the oldest university in the world. It attracted popes and kings as well as students of the calibre of Dante, Copernicus and Boccaccio. You can still visit one of the original university buildings in the centre of Bologna, the former anatomy theatre, the Archiginnasio, in Piazza Galvani. It is open Monday to Saturday from 9 am to 1 pm, admission free.

Also on this day:

1915: The birth of film director Mario Monicelli

1945: The birth of business tycoon Massimo Moratti

1974: The birth of singer-songwriter Laura Pausini


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