Maria Gaetana Agnesi was an eighteenth century Italian mathematician, philosopher and theologian. From the childhood, she was educated at home by a string of learned men of the church. By the age of eleven, she could speak fluently in seven different languages and began to be known as ‘The Seven Tongued Orator’. Even when she was a child, she was prodded by her ambitious father to speak on different topics in front of an august gathering of learned men, many of whom were internationally renowned scholars. In such gatherings she not only spoke on different topics in fluent Latin, but was also required to defend her theses. Moreover, when foreign scholars asked her complicated questions in their native tongue she always answered them in the same language. However, she disliked such obvious display of her intellect and withdrew from such activities in the pretext of her household duties once her mother died, but continued academic activities under the guidance of renowned scholars. Once her father died, she gave up even that. She then started studying theology and devoted her life entirely to the service of the poor.
Childhood & Early Life
Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born on May 16, 1718, in the city of Milan, then under the crown of Habsburg. Her father Pietro Agnesi was a professor of mathematics at the University of Bologna. At the same time, he made immense wealth by trading in silk.
Maria’s mother, Anna Fortuna Brivio, was a scion of famous Brivio family of Milan. Maria Gaetana was their eldest child. The famed Italian composer, Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini, was her younger sister.
Pietro Agnesi was an ambitious and overbearing man. He had married Anna simply to climb up the social ladder. After her death he took two more wives. In all, he had twenty one children. Maria Gaetana had to spend a lot of time looking after her siblings.
Maria Gaetana was born genius. By the age of five, she could speak Italian and French fluently. Pietro Agnesi recognized her talent and employed the best tutors to teach her at home. All of them were learned men of the Church. Maria began her education under their tutelage.
Pietro Agnesi regularly hosted gatherings where men of learning were invited. His main purpose to host such gatherings was to show off his daughter’s talents. While Maria Gaetana had to engage in intellectual discourse her sister was asked to display her musical talent.
When Maria was just nine years old she delivered an hour long self-composed speech in front of eminent guests in Latin. It was on women’s right to higher education. However, some historians are of the opinion that the piece was actually written by one of her tutors and she just delivered it. Even if that is true, it clearly proves that by nine she had mastered Latin. Indeed, for a child as young as that delivering an hour long speech in Latin is no mean feat.
By the age of eleven, Maria had mastered four other languages: Hebrew, Greek, Spanish and German. When she was twelve years old she became ill from excessive studying. Doctors prescribed that she must do everything in moderation. When Maria was fourteen, she began to study analytical geometry and ballistics.
When Maria turned fifteen, Pietro Agnesi began to host the gatherings more regularly. In these gatherings, Maria spoke on a wide range of subjects starting from logic and ontology to hydromechanics and universal gravitation. However, philosophy was one of her favorite subjects and she spoke in great length on it.
At these gatherings, she was asked complex questions on these theses and had to defend them in front of the most learned men of that time. Later in 1738, her father collected 191 discussions on natural philosophy and history and published them as a book, titled ‘Propositiones philosophicae’.
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Maria was actually a very shy and private person. Some time now, she decided to join the church. However, her father was horrified that his most talented child wanted to become a nun and begged her to reconsider her decision. Besides, she had her siblings to look after and so she agreed to stay at home.
However, from that time onwards she began to dress humbly and stopped taking part in profane amusements such as balls and theatres. Instead, she attended the church more regularly and devoted herself to the study of Mathematics.
In 1739, Maria came across ‘Traité analitique des sections coniques’ of the Marquis Guillaume de l'Hôpital and became interested in mathematics. From 1740, she began to be guided by Father Ramiro Rampinelli, who later became professor of mathematics at the University of Pavia. With him, she studied differential as well as integral calculus.
In 1748, on the advice of Rampinelli, she published ‘Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana’ (‘Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth’), in two big volumes. It was a text book on mathematics and some believe it was aimed educating her younger siblings.
Maria Gaetana dedicated the books to Empress Maria Theresa of Austria, who honored her with a personal letter, a diamond ring and a case studded with diamonds and crystals.
Pope Benedict XIV was equally impressed with Maria’s work and in 1750, he appointed her as an honorary Professor of Mathematics in the University of Bologna. However, she did not join the university, but remained at home. Incidentally, she was the second woman to be appointed as a professor at the university.
Apart from this, Maria Agnesi also wrote a commentary on the ‘Traité analytique des sections coniques du marquis de l'Hôpital’. Although it was highly appreciated by many learned people of that time, it was never published. She had by that time turned to theology.
Pietro Agnesi died in 1752 and with that Maria Agnesi became free to study her favorite subject theology. At the same time, she devoted herself to the cause of poor, homeless and sick. She spent all her money in charity and at times had to resort to begging to continue with her work.
In 1762, Agnesi was asked by the University of Turin to give her opinion on the recent articles on the calculus of variations by young Lagrange; she refused. She wrote back saying she was no more interested in such matters.
In 1783, she founded a home for old people and became its director. Here she lived as a nun, taking care of the inmates.
’Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana’, published in 1748 was her best work. It provides a systematic as well as most comprehensive treatment of algebra. Relatively new developments such as as integral and differential calculus were also been included in it. In the first volume she dealt with analysis of finite quantities while the second volume dealt with analysis of infinitesimals.
Personal Life & Legacy
Maria Gaetana Agnesi did not marry. She died on January 9, 1799, at the age of 80, in Milan.
The geometrical curve, ’Witch of Agnesi’, has been named after Maria Gaetana Agnesi. Originally, the Latin name of the curve was ‘versoria’. However, in Italian it became ‘versiera’, which also means devil. Agnesi had talked about the curve in length in her book ‘Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana’. When the work was translated into English the curve began to be known as ‘Witch of Agnesi’.
A crater on planet Venus has been named after Maria Agnesi by the International Astronomical Union's Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature, in 1991.
16765 Agnesi is an asteroid, discovered on October 16, 1996 at Prescott by P. G. Comba. It has also been named after Maria Gaetana Agnesi