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Unsung Heroes: Maria Agnesi

2011 June 30

There are many forms of awesomeness.

So far in this series we’ve seen daredevil pilots, hardworking activists, and daring wartime spies.

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718–1799), by contrast, was a quiet type who lived most of her life in seclusion and finished her days in a convent. So what made her awesome? Well, for one thing she was a particularly prodigious polymath of skull-burstingly intense genius. There’s more than that too, but it makes a good place to start.

Born in Milan to a wealthy silk merchant who had married into nobility, Agnesi was the oldest of 21 children (gigantic families apparently being a running theme amongst the people featured in this series). She was pretty much as prodigious as child prodigies come, speaking both French and Italian by the age of five, and Latin soon after.

A black and white drawing of Maria Agnesi, a young Italian woman, sitting for a portrait

The stare of unadulterated genius.

Her Latin was put to the test at the age of nine, when she began doing public salons and debates, organised by her father. Agnesi prepared a lengthy speech arguing for women’s right to education, translated it into Latin, and delivered it to a gathering of local intellectuals. Most of us, I think, at age nine, would have settled for doing well on a classroom mental arithmetics test, maybe getting a gold star on a spelling quiz. But no, Agnesi was intellectually amazing, so she jumped right past those and straight to giving lectures in a foreign language on controversial topics. As you do.

Over the next few years Agnesi would continue to deliver these speeches and take part in debates – learning Greek, Hebrew, Spanish and German along the way, so that she could talk to her audience in their native languages. She ended up giving several hundred talks, and gathered around two hundred of these which were published as the Propositiones Philosophicae in 1738. For those of you keeping track at home, that makes seven languages learned, hundreds of serious debates from age nine onwards, and one weighty tome published, all by the age of 20.

He began with a fine discourse in Latin to this young girl, that it might be understood by all. She answered him well, after which they entered into a dispute, in the same language, on the origin of fountains and on the causes of the ebb and flow which is seen in some of them, similar to tides at sea. She spoke like an angel on this topic, I have never heard anything so remarkable…

– C de Brosses, Lettres Historique et Critiques sur l’Italie

Agnesi did not particularly enjoy the public life of the intellectual, however, and at age 20 asked to be allowed to join a convent. The request was denied, but she was able to semi-withdraw from the world at home, eschewing social interaction in favour of an almost convent-esque lifestyle within the family household. When she wasn’t tutoring her vast army of siblings, she devoted her time to the study of maths, particularly the fields of differential and integral calculus – still relatively new at the time, having only been formalised in European circles by Newton and Leibniz a generation or so before.

She published her mathematical work in 1748 under the title Instituzioni Analitiche ad uso della Gioventù Italiana, a mammoth two-volume tome that provided a clear and well written introduction to the mathematical concepts of the time. The work was written in Italian1 as opposed to Latin – which was the scholarly language of the time – because Agnesi wanted the work to be accessible to as many young Italians as possible, not just the educated upper classes.

I will finish the Instituzioni with a warning. The expert analyst should be industrious in trying to search for solutions to these problems and will be much more advanced by means of the techniques that are “born” during this process.

– Maria Agnesi

Following her father’s death in 1752, Agnesi was appointed Professor of Mathematics at the university of Bologna by Papal decree. She was the first woman to be appointed to the role of professor in a European university. You know you’re a shining example of sheer genius when the Pope himself decides to say “to hell with traditional gender roles, I want this person made a professor!”.

Agnesi considered the professorship to be an honourary role, and never actually set foot in the university or taught a class, though by all accounts it would actually have been a proper position had she wanted it. Instead, no longer feeling obligated to stay at home for her father, she devoted herself to theology. She became the director of the Hospice Trivulzio, working to provide for the poor and the sick. She remained there until her death, putting all of her not inconsiderable wealth into charitable works, and dying a pauper at the age of 81.

So there you have it. Seven languages, two books, the first female professor by appointment of Pope Benedict XIV, and decades of selfless charity work. That’s a pretty damn good body of evidence in favour of Agnesi being brain-blisteringly awesome.

Further Reading:

  • Unsung Heroes: spotlighting fascinating people we never learned about at school. Rob Mulligan also blogs at Stuttering Demagogue. Stay tuned for future Heroes, or send your own in to [email protected]!
  1. The translation of this work into English saw the word ‘versiera’ (curve) mistaken for ‘avversiera’ (witch). As a result one of the main parts of the work, the formula for a certain curve, now lives on as the Witch of Agnesi. []
3 Responses leave one →
  1. November 1, 2011

    Wow! I Think Agnesi Was A Great Women Who Lived Her Life Heathy And Greatfull As She Wanted RiP!

  2. May 8, 2012

    maria agnesi was a great women i found so much stuff about her doing my research she was a smart beautiful lady .

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