Maria Gaetana Agnesi

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Maria Gaetana Agnesi
Maria Gaetana Agnesi.jpg
Born(1718-05-16)16 May 1718
Died9 January 1799(1799-01-09) (aged 80)
Known forAuthor of Instituzioni Analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana (English: Analytical Institutions for the use of Italian youth)
Scientific career
Fields Mathematics
Institutions University of Bologna

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (Italian pronunciation:  [maˈriːa ɡaeˈtaːna aɲˈɲeːzi; -ɛːzi]; [1] 16 May 1718 – 9 January 1799) was an Italian mathematician, philosopher, theologian, and humanitarian. She was the first woman to write a mathematics handbook and the first woman appointed as a mathematics professor at a university. [2]

Italians nation and ethnic group native to Italy

The Italians are a Romance ethnic group and nation native to the Italian peninsula and its neighbouring insular territories. Most Italians share a common culture, history, ancestry or language. Legally, all Italian nationals are citizens of the Italian Republic, regardless of ancestry or nation of residence and may be distinguished from people of Italian descent without Italian citizenship and from ethnic Italians living in territories adjacent to the Italian Peninsula without Italian citizenship. The majority of Italian nationals are speakers of Italian, or a regional variety thereof. However, many of them also speak another regional or minority language native to Italy; although there is disagreement on the total number, according to UNESCO there are approximately 30 languages native to Italy.

Mathematician person with an extensive knowledge of mathematics

A mathematician is someone who uses an extensive knowledge of mathematics in his or her work, typically to solve mathematical problems.

Philosopher person with an extensive knowledge of philosophy

A philosopher is someone who practices philosophy. The term "philosopher" comes from the Ancient Greek, φιλόσοφος (philosophos), meaning "lover of wisdom". The coining of the term has been attributed to the Greek thinker Pythagoras.


She is credited with writing the first book discussing both differential and integral calculus and was a member of the faculty at the University of Bologna, although she never served.

Differential calculus subfield of calculus

In mathematics, differential calculus is a subfield of calculus concerned with the study of the rates at which quantities change. It is one of the two traditional divisions of calculus, the other being integral calculus, the study of the area beneath a curve.

University of Bologna university in Bologna, Italy

The University of Bologna, founded in 1088 by an organised guild of students, is the oldest university of the world, as well as one of the leading academic institutions in Italy and Europe. It is one of the most prestigious Italian universities, commonly ranking in the first places of national rankings.

She devoted the last four decades of her life to studying theology (especially patristics) and to charitable work and serving the poor. She was a devout Catholic and wrote extensively on the marriage between intellectual pursuit and mystical contemplation, most notably in her essay Il cielo mistico (The Mystic Heaven). She saw the rational contemplation of God as a complement to prayer and contemplation of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. [3]

Theology Study of the nature of deities and religious belief

Theology is the critical study of the nature of the divine. It is taught as an academic discipline, typically in universities and seminaries. It occupies itself with the unique content of analyzing the supernatural, but also especially with epistemology, and asks and seeks to answer the question of revelation. Revelation pertains to the acceptance of God, gods, or deities, as not only transcendent or above the natural world, but also willing and able to interact with the natural world and, in particular, to reveal themselves to humankind. While theology has turned into a secular field, religious adherents still consider theology to be a discipline that helps them live and understand concepts such as life and love and that helps them lead lives of obedience to the deities they follow or worship.

Patristics or patrology is the study of the early Christian writers who are designated Church Fathers. The names derive from the combined forms of Latin pater and Greek patḗr (father). The period is generally considered to run from the end of New Testament times or end of the Apostolic Age to either AD 451 or to the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.

Catholic Church Christian church led by the Bishop of Rome

The Catholic Church, also known as the Roman Catholic Church, is the largest Christian church, with approximately 1.3 billion baptised Catholics worldwide as of 2017. As the world's "oldest continuously functioning international institution", it has played a prominent role in the history and development of Western civilisation. The church is headed by the Bishop of Rome, known as the pope. Its central administration, the Holy See, is in the Vatican City, an enclave within the city of Rome in Italy.

Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini, clavicembalist and composer, was her sister.

Maria Teresa Agnesi Pinottini Italian composer

Maria Teresa Agnesi was an Italian composer. Though she was most famous for her compositions, she was also an accomplished harpsichordist and singer, and the majority of her surviving compositions were written for keyboard, the voice, or both.

Composer person who creates music, either by musical notation or oral tradition

A composer is a musician who is an author of music in any form, including vocal music, instrumental music, electronic music, and music which combines multiple forms. A composer may create music in any music genre, including, for example, classical music, musical theatre, blues, folk music, jazz, and popular music. Composers often express their works in a written musical score using musical notation.

Early life

Maria Gaetana Agnesi was born in Milan, to a wealthy and literate family. [4] [5] [6] Her father Pietro Agnesi, a wealthy silk merchant, [7] wanted to elevate his family into the Milanese nobility. In order to achieve his goal, he had married Anna Fortunato Brivio of the Brivius de Brokles family in 1717. Her mother's death provided her the excuse to retire from public life. She took over management of the household. She was one of 21 children. [8]

Milan Italian city

Milan is a city in northern Italy, capital of Lombardy, and the second-most populous city in Italy after Rome, with the city proper having a population of 1,395,274 while its metropolitan city has a population of 3,245,308. Its continuously built-up urban area has a population estimated to be about 5,270,000 over 1,891 square kilometres. The wider Milan metropolitan area, known as Greater Milan, is a polycentric metropolitan region that extends over central Lombardy and eastern Piedmont and which counts an estimated total population of 7.5 million, making it by far the largest metropolitan area in Italy and the 54th largest in the world. Milan served as capital of the Western Roman Empire from 286 to 402 and the Duchy of Milan during the medieval period and early modern age.

Brivius de Brokles

The Brivio de Brokles were a Hungarian and Italian noble family, supposed to be a branch of the more famous Brivio family from Milan.

Agnesi's diploma from Universita di Bologna Il diploma di nomina dell' Agnesi all' Universita di Bologna.png
Agnesi's diploma from Università di Bologna

Maria was recognized early on as a child prodigy; she could speak both Italian and French at five years of age. By her eleventh birthday, she had also learned Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and Latin, and was referred to as the "Seven-Tongued Orator". [9]

Child prodigy person who, at an early age, develops one or more skills at a level far beyond the norm for their age

A child prodigy is defined in psychology research literature as a person under the age of ten who produces meaningful output in some domain to the level of an adult expert performer.

Italian language Romance language

Italian is a Romance language of the Indo-European language family. Italian, together with Sardinian, is by most measures the closest language to Vulgar Latin of the Romance languages. Italian is an official language in Italy, Switzerland, San Marino and Vatican City. It has an official minority status in western Istria. It formerly had official status in Albania, Malta, Monaco, Montenegro (Kotor) and Greece, and is generally understood in Corsica and Savoie. It also used to be an official language in the former Italian East Africa and Italian North Africa, where it plays a significant role in various sectors. Italian is also spoken by large expatriate communities in the Americas and Australia. Many speakers of Italian are native bilinguals of both standardized Italian and other regional languages.

French language Romance language

French is a Romance language of the Indo-European family. It descended from the Vulgar Latin of the Roman Empire, as did all Romance languages. French evolved from Gallo-Romance, the spoken Latin in Gaul, and more specifically in Northern Gaul. Its closest relatives are the other langues d'oïl—languages historically spoken in northern France and in southern Belgium, which French (Francien) has largely supplanted. French was also influenced by native Celtic languages of Northern Roman Gaul like Gallia Belgica and by the (Germanic) Frankish language of the post-Roman Frankish invaders. Today, owing to France's past overseas expansion, there are numerous French-based creole languages, most notably Haitian Creole. A French-speaking person or nation may be referred to as Francophone in both English and French.

Agnesi suffered a mysterious illness at the age of twelve that was attributed to her excessive studying and was prescribed vigorous dancing and horseback riding. This treatment did not work; she began to experience extreme convulsions, after which she was encouraged to pursue moderation. By age fourteen, she was studying ballistics and geometry. [9] When she was fifteen, her father began to regularly gather in his house a circle of the most learned men in Bologna, before whom she read and maintained a series of theses on the most abstruse philosophical questions. Records of these meetings are given in Charles de Brosses' Lettres sur l'Italie and in the Propositiones Philosophicae, which her father had published in 1738 as an account of her final performance, where she defended 190 philosophical theses. [9]

Her father remarried twice after Maria's mother died, and Maria Agnesi ended up the eldest of 21 children, including her half-siblings. Her father agreed with her that if she were to continue her research into mathematics, then she would be permitted to do all the charity work she wanted. [10] In addition to her performances and lessons, her responsibility was to teach her siblings. This task kept her from her own goal of entering a convent, as she had become strongly religious. Although her father refused to grant this wish, he agreed to let her live from that time on in an almost conventual semi-retirement, avoiding all interactions with society and devoting herself entirely to the study of mathematics. [9] After having read in 1739 the Traité analytique des sections coniques of the Marquis Guillaume de l'Hôpital, she was fully introduced into the field in 1740 by Ramiro Rampinelli, an Olivetan monk who was one of the most notable Italian mathematicians of that time. [11] During that time, Maria studied with him both differential and integral calculus. Her family was recognized as one of the wealthiest in Milan.

Contributions to mathematics

Instituzioni analitiche

First page of Instituzioni analitiche (1748) Il frontispizio delle Instituzioni analitiche dell' Agnesi.png
First page of Instituzioni analitiche (1748)

According to Britannica, she is "considered to be the first woman in the Western world to have achieved a reputation in mathematics". The most valuable result of her labours was the Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventù italiana, (Analytical Institutions for the Use of Italian Youth) which was published in Milan in 1748 and "was regarded as the best introduction extant to the works of Euler". [4] The goal of this work was, according to Agnesi herself, to give a systematic illustration of the different results and theorems of infinitesimal calculus. [11] The model for her treatise was Le calcul différentiel et intégral dans l’Analyse by Charles René Reyneau. [11] In this treatise, she worked on integrating mathematical analysis with algebra. [9] The first volume treats of the analysis of finite quantities and the second of the analysis of infinitesimals.

A French translation of the second volume by P. T. d'Antelmy, with additions by Charles Bossut (1730–1814), was published in Paris in 1775; and Analytical Institutions, an English translation of the whole work by John Colson (1680–1760), the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge, "inspected" by John Hellins, was published in 1801 at the expense of Baron Maseres. [12] The work was dedicated to Empress Maria Theresa, who thanked Agnesi with the gift of a diamond ring, a personal letter, and a diamond and crystal case. Many others praised her work, including Pope Benedict XIV, who wrote her a complimentary letter and sent her a gold wreath and a gold medal. [9]

In writing this work, Agnesi was advised and helped by two distinguished mathematicians: her former teacher Ramiro Rampinelli and Jacopo Riccati. [11]

Witch of Agnesi

The Instituzioni analitiche..., among other things, discussed a curve earlier studied and constructed by Pierre de Fermat and Guido Grandi. Grandi called the curve versoria in Latin and suggested the term versiera for Italian, [13] possibly as a pun: [14] 'versoria' is a nautical term, "sheet", while versiera/aversiera is "she-devil", "witch", from Latin Adversarius, an alias for "devil" (Adversary of God). For whatever reasons, after translations and publications of the Instituzioni analitiche... the curve has become known as the "Witch of Agnesi". [15]


Bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi in Milan 5407 - Palazzo di Brera, Milano - Busto a Gaetana Agnesi - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto, 1-Oct-2011.jpg
Bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi in Milan

Agnesi also wrote a commentary on the Traité analytique des sections coniques du marquis de l'Hôpital which, though highly praised by those who saw it in manuscript, was never published. [16]

Later life

In 1750, on the illness of her father, she was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV [15] to the chair of mathematics and natural philosophy and physics at Bologna, though she never served. [9] She was the second woman ever to be granted professorship at a university, Laura Bassi being the first. [17] In 1751, she became ill again and was told not to study by her doctors. After the death of her father in 1752 she carried out a long-cherished purpose by giving herself to the study of theology, and especially of the Fathers and devoted herself to the poor, homeless, and sick, giving away the gifts she had received and begging for money to continue her work with the poor. In 1783, she founded and became the director of the Opera Pia Trivulzio, a home for Milan's elderly, where she lived as the nuns of the institution did. [9] On 9 January 1799, Maria Agnesi died poor and was buried in a mass grave for the poor with fifteen other bodies. [18]

In 1996, an asteroid, 16765 Agnesi, was named after Agnesi. There is a crater on Venus named after her, too. [19] There is also a mathematical curve named the Witch of Agnesi.

In 2017, the Family Coppola released a brandy named after Agnesi. [20]

See also

Related Research Articles

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Witch of Agnesi mathematical curve

In mathematics, the witch of Agnesi is a cubic plane curve defined from two diametrically opposite points of a circle. It gets its name from Italian mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi, and from a mistranslation of an Italian word for a sailing sheet. Before Agnesi, the same curve was studied by Fermat, Grandi, and Newton.

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  1. Canepari, L. (1999, 2009) Dizionario di pronuncia italiana Archived 15 May 2013 at the Wayback Machine . Bologna, Zanichelli.
  2. WOMEN'S HISTORY CATEGORIES ( archived from the original), About Education
  3. Mazzotti, Massimo. "Maria Gaetana Agnesi: Mathematics and the Making of the Catholic Enlightenment." Isis, Vol. 92, No. 4 (Dec. 2001), 657-683).
  4. 1 2 A'Becket 1913.
  5. "Maria Gaetana Agnesi". Retrieved 16 May 2014.
  6. Maor, Eli (2013). "Maria Agnesi and Her "Witch"". Trigonometric Delights. Princeton University Press. pp. 108–111. ISBN   9780691158204.
  7. Findlen, Paula, Calculations of faith: mathematics, philosophy, and sanctity in 18th-century Italy (new work on Maria Gaetana Agnesi)Historia Mathematica 38 (2011), 248-291. doi : 10.1016/
  8. Spradley, Joseph (2016). Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia,. Salem Press via Ebsco.
  9. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Ogilvie, Marilyn Bailey (1986). Women in science: antiquity through the nineteenth century : a biographical dictionary with annotated bibliography (3rd print ed.). Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. p. 27. ISBN   0-262-15031-X.
  10. Swaby, Rachel (2015). Headstrong 52 Women Who Changed Science-and the World. New York: Broadway Books. p. 179.
  11. 1 2 3 4 Gliozzi, Mario. "Agnesi, Maria Gaetana". Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani (in Italian). Enciclopedia Italiana. Retrieved 17 September 2015.
  12. Analytical institutions... (four volumes), London, 1801 vol. 1 , p. PR3, at Google Books
  13. C. Truesdell, "Correction and Additions for 'Maria Gaetana Agnesi'", Archive for History of Exact Science 43 (1991), 385–386. doi : 10.1007/BF00374764
    • Per Grandi: "...nata da' seni versi, che da me suole chiamarsi la Versiera in latino pero Versoria..."
  14. S.M.Stigler, "Cauchy and the witch of Agnesi: An historical note on the Cauchy distribution", Biometrika , 1974, vol. 61, no.2 p. 375–380
  15. 1 2 Chisholm 1911.
  16. Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911, p. 378
  17. Pickover, Clifford. The Math Book. Sterling Publishing, 2009, p. 180.
  18. "Agnesi". Retrieved 18 September 2017.
  19. Atlas of Venus, by Peter John Cattermole, Patrick Moore, 1997, ISBN   0-521-49652-7, p. 112
  20. Stierch, Sarah (27 September 2017). "Coppola Family Launches Spirits Line Named After Historic Women". Sonoma Magazine. Retrieved 27 September 2017.

Further reading