From Genius to Witch: The Rise and Fall of a Filosofessa




This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 18,  Genius

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The myth of the child prodigy is familiar to all of us. A boy, tutored by his father, captures the public imagination. He achieves remarkable things by adolescence; his genius is performed for public spectacle; his life and work become part of public record. The young man makes history.

Most often, of course, the recognized genius is indeed male.

And yet, for a brief period in European history, the story went a little differently. During the first half of the 18th century, in certain parts of Europe — northern Italy in particular — the most celebrated child prodigies were girls. This phenomenon flourished in otherwise inhospitable circumstances: girls and women didn’t have access to formal education at the time and little legal or social standing. They were not, by any means, treated the same as boys were. And yet, some of these girl geniuses went on to become distinguished and learned women in modern sciences — most notably in mathematics, physics, and medicine.

One of the most acclaimed female child prodigies was Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718–1799), whose 300th birthday we celebrate this year. Agnesi eventually grew into a learned woman, or filosofessa, and, in 1748, became the first woman to publish a mathematics book. Two years later, she became the first woman invited to lecture on mathematics at a university. The offer came from Bologna, one of the largest and most prestigious universities in Europe. Remarkably, Bologna already had a woman on its faculty: Laura Bassi, professor of experimental physics, and, yes, another former child prodigy. Agnesi was also nominated to the Academy of Sciences in Bologna, which had a startling number of women among its members during that period — at least five. Her book, hailed by the Parisian Academy of Sciences as an excellent systematization of the new techniques of integral and differential calculus, was translated into French and English, and used as a textbook for decades.

Agnesi seems to have been part of a phenomenon that historians have long struggled to understand. Why was so much attention dedicated to identifying and nurturing female academic talent in northern Italy? Why on earth did Agnesi decide to study advanced mathematics? And how did a woman come to be perceived as a credible mathematician? More specifically, how did Agnesi find her way through a rigidly gendered scientific environment and establish herself as a legitimate scholar?

This remarkable story is, of course, not the beginning of progressive female inclusion. The height of Agnesi’s scientific career, from the 1720s to the early 1750s, coincided with the peak of the phenomenon of female child prodigies and scholars. By her death in 1799, that world was long gone and Agnesi’s name was nearly erased from the annals of science — along with the names of other accomplished and learned women of this period. What had happened? Was there a connection between the brief acknowledgment of young, genius girls and their eventual demise?

To answer these questions we need to listen to Agnesi’s long-lost voice. This means steering clear of facile dichotomies and suspiciously linear narratives. Instead, we need to focus on Agnesi’s own experience, and how she made sense of the world she inhabited.

 

Entering a Conversazione

Agnesi was born in 1718 to a wealthy Milanese family, which had built its fortune in the luxury textile trade. By the age of five, she was already entertaining friends and visitors by speaking foreign languages and reciting poetry. At nine, she delivered an oration defending the right of women to access all kinds of knowledge, including in the sciences. The monologue, which was probably a Latin translation exercise written by her tutor, stunned the audience gathered at her family’s palazzo. It was in fact, so impressive that it was published in 1729, in a collection of essays on the question of women’s education. In fact, it tapped into a broader issue circulating at the time. There were new and modern ideas about liberty and justice, and perhaps the time had come to question women’s subordinate status. Earlier versions of the querelle des femmes had mostly taken the form of male-dominated exercises in erudition, but the question had assumed a more urgent tone in those years. In more pedagogical terms — the terms that concerned Agnesi — the central question was: should women be allowed to study whatever they wished?

Agnesi certainly did just that. By the 1730s, she had grown into a learned and combative adolescent, but unlike her brothers, she could not seek admission to boarding school. Her father Pietro, however, was determined to give his daughter an extensive and advanced education, hiring the best tutors in the humanities and sciences. Newtonianism was just then spreading across the continent, and Agnesi was soon privy to its concepts and ideas. She completed her studies at the age of 20, and published her theses, just as any successful university student might have done at the time. They displayed an impressive breadth of philosophical and scientific knowledge, revealing some of the distinctive inclinations that would guide Agnesi’s career: her defense of Newtonian doctrines against continental opponents, and her passion for mathematics. Mathematics, she wrote, “makes us reach and contemplate truth, of which nothing is more delightful.”

By that point, Agnesi had become a fascinating and slightly unsettling public attraction. Visitors from all corners of Europe gathered for nightly events at her palazzo in Milan, craving to see the famed filosofessa with their own eyes. According to a variety of sources, the audience would gather around in a circle — up to 30 or 40 people at a time — in a richly decorated salon to listen to her debate controversial topics in natural philosophy and mathematics. Typically, these debates would take the form of an academic disputation. Agnesi would confront authoritative opponents — university professors, high-ranking ecclesiastics, and prominent visitors — on topics like the origin of spring waters, or the nature of light and colors. These were well-structured theatrical performances framed by music and refreshments. This kind of gathering was called a conversazione — literally, a conversation.

Some of these evenings were well documented. Two French gentlemen recounted their trip to the Agnesi conversazione in their letters home. They visited on a hot summer evening in 1739; upon entering, they were unexpectedly invited to engage in a conversation with Agnesi on a scientific topic of their choice. They were puzzled by this unusual request but agreed. Since the room was filled with people “from all the nations of Europe,” they were asked to conduct the discussion in Latin, so that everyone could understand. One of the Frenchmen described putting his glass of iced water down to address the lady in rusty Latin. For about an hour, they discussed theories of body-soul relations, a primary scientific concern at the time. His friend, who asked permission to speak in French, stepped in after, changing the subject to the properties of certain geometrical curves. For her part, Agnesi continued to speak in Latin, and those who could not follow her reasoning were nonetheless able to enjoy her Ciceronian eloquence. “She spoke like an angel,” one of the Frenchmen commented.

When the discussion ended, Agnesi’s younger sister, Maria Teresa, herself a musical child prodigy, played the harpsichord and sang. As the long summer evening turned into night, candles were lit, sorbets were served, and everyone rose from their chairs to join the general conversation. Agnesi now played the gracious host, greeting the guests, addressing them in French, German, Spanish, or Greek. To the two Frenchmen she said that she was sorry that their first meeting had taken that peculiar form. She also expressed ambivalence about these kinds of public discussions: for the two people who are truly excited, she quipped, 20 are bored to death. The Frenchmen, who had entered the palazzo with some skepticism, left in awe.

What made Agnesi such an intriguing public figure was her resistance to familiar types of womanhood. Her striking skills — profound learning, social acumen, scholarly bravery, debating ability — were coupled with a fervent religiosity and what at the time was called virtuous modesty. Agnesi did not fit the model of the French salonnière, but was equally far removed from the ideal of silent femininity promoted by the Counter-Reformation. She had not been trained to keep silent. In fact, she had mastered rhetorical techniques and, in the opinion of witnesses, her ease of speech far surpassed that of boys her age, even those who had been schooled in the best Jesuit colleges. Her disputational skills belonged indeed to the masculine spaces of the boarding school and the university, where students would routinely compete against opponents (often the teachers themselves) learning how to defend or attack a thesis. Seeing a young woman publically perform this dialectical art proved fascinating and perturbing: no wonder she became a veritable magnet for literati, aristocrats, magistrates, politicians, and powerful dignitaries of the Holy Roman Empire.

 

Agnesi’s Choices

Agnesi’s glittering life was not without its costs. Intense study and continual performances probably contributed to a mysterious “malady” in her teenage years. The worst of it seemed to strike when Agnesi was 14, after she lost her mother and her favorite tutor. This was undoubtedly too much loss even for such a brave and determined adolescent. Her father hired physicians who specialized in “convulsions,” and though they tried various regimes of physical exercise, it was to little avail. A friend reported that on one occasion, Agnesi attempted to jump off a balcony in one of the family’s country villas, but she was stopped just in time. This difficult period in Agnesi’s life was marked by a documentary blackout. It isn’t clear how Agnesi recovered but it was later credited to the direct intercession of Saint Cajetan, her patron saint. The malady seemed to last about a year, after which Agnesi dutifully returned to her studies and public engagements.

Pietro Agnesi was zealous in supporting his daughter’s education and scientific work. While we have no direct evidence of his motives, the family’s finances are revealing. Pietro was the first in his family to distance himself from trade and warehouses, making an obvious effort to buy his entrance into the Milanese patriciate. In order to live like nobility, the household overspent — constantly. Pietro also made investments specifically designed to elevate the family’s social status, rather than yield any significant income. He purchased, for example, unproductive land that came with a feudal title. His daughter’s extraordinary talent was a key element in this strategy, because it attracted the attention of Milanese and imperial elites. Pietro helped her assemble an impressive library, purchase scientific instruments, and work with first-rate mentors. In return, he expected her to engage in domestic performances at his behest. She, however, grew impatient with the life he decreed.

On one occasion, when Agnesi was studying in a quiet country villa, he called her back to Milan to perform for the heir to the throne of Poland. She was not on the original program for this visit, but the prince wanted to meet the filosofessa. Grudgingly, the 20-year-old Agnesi got in the gilded carriage sent for her, and duly performed two scientific disputations as brilliantly as ever. A few days later, writing to a former tutor, she ironically commented on how “appropriately” she and her sister had behaved, and how the prince, like other powerful men before him, had come to “fill his eyes with pleasurable visions.” She was already thinking about withdrawing from her public life.

Eventually, Agnesi told her father that she would become a nun if their routine didn’t change. She wanted to dress down, to detach herself from his obsession with luxury. She also wanted to be exempt from going to the theater, parties, and the other rituals of the Milanese elite. She offered to join her father’s conversazione, but more sparingly, at her will and not his. She wanted to concentrate on studying what really mattered to her: mathematics and theology. She also wanted to live in the real world — “in the century,” as she would put it. These were difficult years in Milan — years of war and stagnation — and Agnesi could see moral and physical destitution right outside her palazzo. She was appalled by the living conditions of the poor women and children she saw on the street. She was determined to take part in the world, and to help the people who needed her. A family friend recalled that for a while it looked as if Pietro had been struck by lightning. But it was thanks to Agnesi, that his conversazione had reached international visibility: he had no choice but to accept her demands.

 

Intellectual Pleasures and Earthly Saintliness 

By the mid-1740s, Agnesi was one of few Italian specialists who had mastered the techniques of differential and integral calculus. At that time, calculus was the newest and most promising branch of mathematics. The discipline was undergoing rapid expansion mainly because it could so powerfully represent varied empirical phenomena. Calculus was especially effective at modeling processes of physical change, such as the trajectory of a cannon ball, or the water flow of a river.

Jacopo Riccati, one of the pioneers of calculus, lived in the Republic of Venice, whose very existence depended on the management of watercourses. Agnesi reached Riccati through one of her tutors, and they began a rich correspondence. She was determined to refine her understanding of key concepts and techniques and so she plied him with questions. He later confessed to a friend that it wasn’t long before she was taking his suggestions in directions he could not have imagined. She was doing her own thing.

Up to that point, research on calculus had appeared in various books and periodicals published across Europe. According to Agnesi, these disparate publications yielded methodological inconsistencies and made it difficult for newcomers to find their way through the literature, and so she started planning a book that would offer a coherent systematization of the new field. In order to ensure consistency and methodological cohesion, Agnesi oversaw all aspects of the publication. The publisher’s printing press was moved to her palazzo, so that she could supervise the typesetters, who had never worked with calculus symbols before. The two elegant volumes of Analytical Institutions, were published in 1748. Agnesi’s book was the first well-structured and accessible presentation of this burgeoning mathematical field. The book was not only celebrated at the time — the French Academy of Sciences for example, praised its clarity and innovative methodology — it also became a standard reference text for future generations. Decades later, famed mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange still recommended its second volume as the best available introduction to calculus.

Agnesi’s work stood out within the existent literature, in part because rival texts were typically just collections of examples and problem-solving techniques. These were toolboxes for practitioners who wanted to use calculus to tackle empirical problems. Agnesi’s systematic approach, by contrast, was based on an entirely different perspective. As she explained in a letter to Riccati, she was interested in the parts of calculus that were not dependent on empirical states of affairs. The study of many curves, she wrote, “I left aside on purpose,” as she did not want to get bogged down “with physical matters,” but rather wanted to focus on “pure analysis.” In other words, Agnesi was not interested in calculus because of its modeling power. Instead, she aimed to teach the reader a way of reasoning, characterized by extreme intellectual rigor. Ultimately, calculus was, for her, an extension of Euclidean geometry — it should therefore achieve the same level of precision and certainty. In fact, because it dealt with abstract concepts like infinity, calculus required a superior intellectual effort; for her, this was the most sublime of intellectual exercises, and, as such, the source of unparalleled delight.

By thinking about calculus in this way, Agnesi revitalized older Platonic and Cartesian traditions, as well as the views of her favorite natural philosopher, Isaac Newton. But she did this using the new form of continental calculus. Her book was therefore distinctive — it focused on the new mathematics itself rather than its applications. Nevertheless, historians of science have paid little attention to it. The few who leafed through its pages dismissed its unusual features as signs of Agnesi’s inadequacy: “While learning calculus,” wrote a historian in the 1980s, “she does not wish to study rational mechanics as well!” Riccati knew better: Agnesi was making deliberate choices, which ran against the grain of contemporary scientific practice. The form of the book owed much to its pedagogical purpose, but it also catered to a particular vision of mathematics and its intellectual and spiritual relevance.

Indeed, for Agnesi, mathematics could also make a difference in spiritual life. She was steeped in a philosophical tradition that regarded the “capacity of attention” as a desirable spiritual quality, and calculus, in this view, could be seen as a powerful training tool. She could use it to improve her concentration and in so doing, turn its practice into a form of “natural prayer.” Agnesi’s religiosity, grounded in meditation and intellectual exercise, was in fact at odds with baroque sensibility. This “reasonable” religiosity, as it was sometimes called, was built on the capacity to direct attention to mathematical analyses every bit as much as to the signs of the passion of Christ. In one manuscript fragment, for example, Agnesi described feeling her soul “rise” through such meditation. For her, the notion of “attention” thus brought scientific and religious life together in a profound and unexpected way.

Charity was another pillar of her religiosity. She taught poor girls and organized a network of parish schools. She financially supported women who were heads of households, and offered assistance to ailing women who could not take care of themselves. At one point, she turned a wing of her family palazzo into an infirmary. Absorbed as she was by her new projects, Agnesi never did go to Bologna to take up her position, although her name figured in the university’s books for many years. In fact, she gradually abandoned scientific life. To close friends, she explained that she had written her book of mathematics because she hoped it would be useful to scholars and students. Now, however, she had other plans in mind.

During the last three decades of her life, Agnesi directed the female section of a large charitable institution assisting the urban poor and infirm. She faced the new task with her usual determination, pushing out protégés of the Austrian governor, who had turned it into a lucrative business. She knew perfectly well that she was stepping on toes. Her directorship, she wrote in a letter, was causing “great disgust” among the institute’s administrators, as “it takes away from them part of that absolute power that they desire so strongly.” Agnesi became a role model for many “enlightened Catholics” who combined Catholic tradition with the methods of the new sciences. Her social work, in particular, was exemplary of a new kind of lay charity in the service of “public happiness,” designed to replace baroque models of otherworldly saintliness.

 

The Mind Has No Sex

Agnesi dedicated Analytical Institutions to the most powerful woman in Europe at the time: Maria Theresa of Austria, who had successfully defended her right to rule through seven years of war. Agnesi presented it as a collection “of the luminous progresses of human intellect,” and argued that if ever there was a time for women to follow the rapid flights of science, it was then, “when a woman rules with universal admiration.” “All women,” Agnesi continued, should join the empress and “work for the glory of their sex.”

After the publication of Analytical Institutions, Agnesi received many letters of congratulations from across Europe, but one in particular stood out. It was a personal note from the pontiff, Benedict XIV, who exhibited some knowledge of the book’s contents and mentioned his own studies of analysis as a young man. He wrote again two years later, to announce that he had recommended appointing Agnesi as a lecturer in mathematics at the University of Bologna, then under pontifical rule. The academic senate approved the appointment in 1750. The pontiff thus granted Bologna, his home city, the honor of having two famous learned women — Bassi and Agnesi — on its faculty.

Benedict was sympathetic to Agnesi’s enlightened Catholicism. In fact, he hoped that more Catholic scholars would engage with the new science, thereby returning Catholicism to the forefront of Western culture. He also endorsed the enlightened Catholics’ fight against all forms of baroque and superstitious religiosity, favoring “reasonable devotion,” which valued the believer’s intellect, education, and social utility. Most importantly, he was keen to have more women take up leading roles in religious life at a time when traditional elites were growing detached from its collective rites. In a related move, Benedict also modified canon law so that women could produce evidence during processes of canonization, thus giving them unprecedented social and epistemological legitimacy. The raising fortune of the “education of the Virgin” as a theme in paintings across Catholic Europe was emblematic of this reformist spirit.

This is not to say that enlightened Catholics argued for the right of women to have generalized access to higher education — quite the contrary: they mostly argued against it. But they also avoided the claim that women were intellectually unfit for science. Most authors subscribed to a rigidly dualistic Christian anthropology, according to which the mind belongs to the spiritual component of the human being, and not to the material body. They claimed, in other words, that “the mind has no sex.”

This egalitarianism, however, existed only in principle, as it was continuously undermined by the practice of excluding women on social and moral grounds. A popular enlightened Catholic book on women’s education published in 1740 concluded that the only women who could safely devote themselves to the study of science and mathematics were “childless widows and wealthy virgins.” The learned woman could exist only as an exception.

A significant number of women were able to join the debate. Using Agnesi as an example, Gaetana Secchi Ronchi, a poet from the provincial town of Guastalla, declared that women, surely, had not been vouchsafed “spirit and virtue” to support the tyranny of men. The Tuscan Aretafila Savini de’ Rossi, who saw herself as a defender of the new science and its empirical methods, asked that all women, noble and commoner, be able to access formal education. At the center of one of her essays was the assumption that “God created all of our souls equal, giving them the same powers, and these veils that cover our souls are not biased in their substance.” Therefore, “one cannot justly deny women that assistance that contributes to self-knowledge and a sense of one’s own dignity.” The universal access to a formal education, she argued, would not produce social disruption but, on the contrary, it would be beneficial to both family life and the public good.

Closer to Agnesi, in Milan, other women were making their presence felt in the literary world. In 1719, the noblewoman Clelia Borromeo del Grillo — who, a visitor reported, “[spoke] Arabic like the Koran” and was passionate about physics and mathematics — founded a scientific academy in her own palazzo, enlisting prominent natural philosophers and mathematicians from across Italy. Commoners, like Francesca Manzoni, also rose to scholarly fame. Manzoni too was a child prodigy, who in her 20s became an authority in the study of Latin patristic literature. She was also granted imperial patronage for her work as a poet. Many of her compositions celebrated local women like Agnesi who “make our sex proud,” and whose capacities “silence those who hate the learned woman.”

 

Battle for the Female Mind 

These advocates of women’s cognitive equality faced a growing misogynist reaction. Around 1750, at the height of his daughter’s fame, Pietro Agnesi was openly criticized for keeping Maria Gaetana and her sister in social limbo for his own purposes, precluding them from marriage or the convent. Pietro quarreled with the governor of Milan on this particular issue. After the clamorous argument, he suffered a “violent chest pain” and died.

Meanwhile, the haughty learned woman was becoming a recognizable character in innumerable plays and novels. In these stories, women’s learning went hand in hand with arrogance and moral corruption, to the point that the term filosofessa assumed a derogatory meaning. Powerful and dissolute ladies were described as keeping books by Locke and Newton in their boudoirs, where they discussed scientific matters in depraved “modern conversations.” The men who participated in such conversations were represented as not only effeminate but complicit in an aberrant inversion of the power relationship between the sexes.

The conversazione, an important site of female acculturation, was thus ridiculed and morally condemned, while the private tutors hired to teach women were portrayed as abdicating their natural rights in favor of “stupid subjugation.” Cities like Bologna and Milan, where learned women had been an especially visible and active presence, attracted the contempt of observers who marveled at female “despotic power,” and dominion over “husbands and ministers.” In Milan, a French envoy reported disapprovingly, women enjoyed “great credit,” to the point that their “bizarre will” was more respected than the “lights of Reason.”

This opposition between “Reason” and the female mind was an increasingly popular theme. Savini de’Rossi, like other educated women, was convinced that modern science was on her side in the battle for cognitive equality. Gradually, however, new evidence, deemed scientific at the time, transformed the debate, characterizing the female mind as unsuited to rational thought. Agnesi called these attempts to naturalize women’s cognitive inferiority a “philosophical aberration” but they gained a strong foothold in the culture.

One of the texts that contributed to this “aberration” was a widely-circulated letter written by the natural philosopher Antonio Conti. The letter, published in 1756, addressed the question of women’s intellectual fitness for scientific and political life in self-consciously enlightened and studiously impartial terms. Conti had a materialistic theory of the mind: he believed that human thought resulted from the vibration of brain fibers, much like sound results from the vibration of a string. An ample vibration corresponded with a clear idea, a feeble vibration with a confused one. Referencing contemporary literature on anatomical difference, Conti argued that female bodies were less vigorous than the bodies of men, and awash in fluids, due to their reproductive function. As a consequence, the fibers constituting female organs lacked solidity and elasticity. Conti ventured that the fibers of a female brain were softer than a man’s — and a softer brain made necessarily for a weaker mind. Overall, the female body was simply unfit for rigorous thought.

Interestingly enough, like Agnesi, Conti placed the capacity for attention at the center of intellectual activity. He understood that capacity however, in very different terms: attention was a function of the number and duration of the cerebral fibers’ vibrations. For him, attention is what allowed the mind to generate abstract and complex ideas, and so it followed that the female mind was severely limited in all disciplines, but especially in logic and mathematics.

Conti’s was just one of many physiological arguments against female education articulated across Europe at the time. With the enlightened Catholics, the learned woman was an exception; according to these new scientific theories, however, she simply couldn’t exist.

  

The Thinking Uterus

By the 1770s, physiological arguments for the intellectual inferiority of women had become mainstream science. Misogyny was scientized, especially in places where women played a significant role in scientific life. In Bologna, for instance, Petronio Zecchini published a booklet in 1771 on how women think. Zecchini, an anatomist and a young professor of medicine, worked in the shadow of famed anatomist Anna Morandi. He tried to make his mark by distancing himself from those “brutal philosophers” who, like Conti, argued that matter can think. But he could not, he said, exclude the possibility that the body might act on the mind, and affect its cognitive abilities. Based on anatomical evidence, Zecchini asserted with great confidence that the highly innervated organ responsible for women’s “singular way of reasoning” was the uterus.

The uterus “makes women think,” he argued, thus accounting for their extravagant habits, lustful desires, emotional instability, faulty logic, and, most importantly, for their congenital incapacity for focusing their attention. Women were therefore incapable of sound and systematic reasoning. This brought him to a conclusion about Agnesi herself: she couldn’t possibly be the author of the book published under her name, she must have taken credit for the work of a tutor.

The “thinking uterus,” a term coined by Zecchini, captured the imagination of Bolognese physicians, literati, and high society. Even the aging Giacomo Casanova, who was living in Bologna at the time, paid attention. Casanova, whose seductions increasingly required financial support, quickly penned a satirical pamphlet poking fun at Zecchini and arguing for the effect that sperm had on a man’s mind. On a more serious note, Casanova also argued that minds were shaped by education and social condition rather than physical states. Allegedly innate female traits, like vanity for example, were “artificial virtues” that responded to expectations, rather than the effect of woman’s body on her mind. The pamphlet was popular — and earned Casanova a pretty penny — but his resistance to the Enlightenment’s impulse to naturalize the links between sex, mind, and social role was increasingly in the minority.

By 1793, when a conservative Catholic author published a satire about a lady who tried to become a natural philosopher, women’s physical and intellectual inadequacy could be taken for granted. The book was dedicated to Agnesi, who had been “wise enough” to renounce her scientific career. Meanwhile, the literature on education stressed women’s inadequate capacity for abstract thought and apparently limitless sentimentality, recasting them as “the moral sex.”

Clearly, the sun had set on the world of the filosofessa.

 

Epilogue 

Even though the career patterns of these learned women vary, we can nonetheless identify certain broader conditions that made it possible for them to be perceived as credible scholars. These include the relatively benevolent views of enlightened Catholics, who were sympathetic to women’s education and involvement in public life. They refused to differentiate between male and the female minds based on physiological considerations, and endorsed what we might call an exceptionality model: women are generally fit for the study of science, and some might even excel at it, but their access should be severely restricted on social and moral grounds. In most cases, this exceptionality was fashioned and controlled through the phenomenon of the child prodigy. The uneven geographical distribution of learned women seems consistent with this hypothesis, as does the rapid decline of their status and credibility, which followed the demise of enlightened Catholicism, and the radicalization of the political and cultural debate in the 1760s.

Agnesi died of pneumonia in 1799. Milan was under French military occupation, and religious processions were temporarily forbidden. She was buried quickly, at night, in a common grave; later attempts to identify her remains were unsuccessful. The circumstances of her physical disappearance are emblematic of the process of erasure that was already under way at the time of her death. One of the few visible traces left of her life and work was the name of a geometrical curve she had studied in her book. In the English translation of 1801, this curve was called the “Witch of Agnesi” — probably a mistranslation, but a telling one. The name stuck.

Agnesi was essentially rediscovered, around 1900, by the author of her first modern biography, the early Italian feminist Luisa Anzoletti. A serious assessment of her scientific achievements, however, would have to wait even longer. The naturalization of the unmathematical female mind had been so successful and pervasive that, for a long time, historians of mathematics did not even try to understand her work on its own terms, but rather assumed that it was derivative and irrelevant.

Instead, her voice tells us new and important stories about the age of Enlightenment, the rise of Enlightenment science, and how innovation and tradition are always inextricably linked. Agnesi’s life and work illuminate an unexpected intersection of scientific life and religious experience, and the fact that mathematics is necessarily embedded in culture — in fact, it is culture. Her voice tells us of a world that we have just begun to explore.

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Massimo Mazzotti teaches history of science in the Department of History at UC Berkeley, where he is the Director of the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society

 


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