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The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God

Massimo Mazzotti

Publication Year: 2007

She is best known for her curve, the witch of Agnesi, which appears in almost all high school and undergraduate math books. She was a child prodigy who frequented the salon circuit, discussing mathematics, philosophy, history, and music in multiple languages. She wrote one of the first vernacular textbooks on calculus and was appointed chair of mathematics at the university in Bologna. In later years, however, she became a prominent figure within the Catholic Enlightenment, gave up the academic world, and devoted herself to the poor, the sick, the hungry, and the homeless. Indeed, the life of Maria Agnesi reveals a complex and enigmatic figure—one of the most fascinating characters in the history of mathematics. Using newly discovered archival documents, Massimo Mazzotti reconstructs the wide spectrum of Agnesi's social experience and examines her relationships to various traditions—religious, political, social, and mathematical. This meticulous study shows how she and her fellow Enlightenment Catholics modified tradition in an effort to reconcile aspects of modern philosophy and science with traditional morality and theology. Mazzotti's original and provocative investigation is also the first targeted study of the Catholic Enlightenment and its influence on modern science. He argues that Agnesi's life is the perfect lens through which we can gain a greater understanding of mid-eighteenth-century cultural trends in continental Europe.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press

Series: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Mathematics

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. ix-x

I have been working on Agnesi for a number of years. During this period I received support and insightful comments from many people from various countries and institutions. To all of them I am profoundly grateful. My thanks go to the fellow of the Dibner Institute at MIT during the academic...

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Introduction: Another Enlightenment

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pp. xi-xx

The name Maria Gaetana Agnesi and the dates of her birth and death (1718–99) will probably be familiar only to the friendly but restricted community of historians of mathematics. Agnesi was indeed the first woman to publish a mathematics book, an early treatise on calculus dated 1748 and...

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1. Engaging in a Conversation

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pp. 1-21

Milan can be unpleasantly hot and humid in the summertime, but strolling its streets in the summer of 1739 must have been an unpleasant experience even by Milanese standards. According to the local gazette, by early July the lack of rain and fresh air had already caused “damage to the health of...

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2. Catholicisms

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pp. 22-43

Pietro Agnesi liked to dress elegantly, favoring bright colors and precious textiles such as velvet and silk. His wardrobe was filled with modern-cut tailcoats (marsine) and jackets (giubbe), which were rather long, in the Parisian style. He certainly had black velvet sets for occasions on which they...

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3. Trees of Knowledge

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pp. 44-66

The large room in which Gaetana studied and wrote was far from the site of the conversazione and sheltered by a series of quiet rooms that were used by members of the family for prayer and rest. In one of these rooms, facing an ivory crucifix, was a walnut prie-dieu. Next to it, a door opened onto...

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4. Choices

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pp. 67-92

As Brosses took leave of the Palazzo Agnesi on that night in July 1739, he was told something that surprised and disappointed him. Apparently Gaetana had expressed the wish to enter the cloister and don the sky-blue habit of an Augustinian nun. Brosses could not understand this choice, which...

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5. A List of Books

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pp. 93-104

One morning in April 1752, following Pietro Agnesi’s death, the notary Carlo Federico Tarchini entered Gaetana’s studio and let his professional gaze survey the globes, armillary spheres, mathematical instruments, and volumes in the tall, finely carved walnut bookcases. At that point...

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6. Calculus for the Believer

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pp. 105-123

The Olivetan monk Ramiro Rampinelli arrived in Milan at the end of 1740, having been dispatched to teach mathematics at the monastery of San Vittore in Corpo. Rampinelli was already a well-known teacher and one of the few credited with being able to lecture on the new analysis of Leibniz...

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7. A New Female Mind

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pp. 124-143

In February 1752, the governor of Milan and captain general of Lombardy, Count Gianluca Pallavicini, was invited to attend a soirée at the Palazzo Agnesi. The governor, a convinced supporter of Maria Theresa’s administrative reform, was “very attached” to the Agnesi, and on confidential...

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pp. 144-151

With Pietro’s death in April 1752, the Agnesi family entered the prescribed six-month period of mourning. Black velvet drapes were hung at the windows of the palazzo, although probably not as many as Pietro might have wished. Recent decrees regulated not only the use of titles and the...


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pp. 153-179


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pp. 181-210


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pp. 211-217

E-ISBN-13: 9781421410425
E-ISBN-10: 1421410427
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801887093
Print-ISBN-10: 0801887097

Page Count: 240
Illustrations: 7 halftones
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Mathematics