“For if at any time there can be an excuse for the rashness of a Woman who ventures to aspire to the subtleties of a science, which knows no bounds, not even those of infinity itself, it certainly should be at this glorious period, in which a Woman reigns…”—Marian Gaetana Agnesi’s dedication of her book “Analytical Institutions” to Maria Theresa, empress of the Austrian empire, in 1748.
Like Jean Berko Gleason, psycholinguist (and speed demon!), the enigmatic Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) was a walking polyglot. Maria could speak both French and Italian at age five, and by age twelve, she spoke Greek, Hebrew, Spanish, German, and Latin. But Maria, whose name is attached to a mathematical curve called “The Witch of Agnesi,” is known for her contributions to mathematics. At age eleven, Maria wrote and read, in Latin, her own appeal for women’s right to education and to what she would later call, in the introduction of her landmark book on mathematics, “the sublime sciences.”
Maria Gaetana Agnesi grew up in a wealthy, noble family. At the invitation of her father, scholars regularly gathered at her home, and in the harpsichord salon she dazzled them with talk about the ways of the tides and the origins of spring waters. They talked of light, color, geometry, and the human soul. Afterward, the Agnesi family and guests wound down over fruit-flavored ices while Maria’s sister played the harpsichord and sang arias.
In 1738, at the age of twenty, Maria Agnesi published “Propositiones Philosophicae,” an anthology of essays on natural science and philosophy drawn from the years of conversations between the intellectuals who gathered at her father’s home. Soon thereafter, she wearied of social life. She immersed herself in mathematics, and years later she dazzled academic circles with “Analytical Institutions,” a book that fused the work of many mathematicians. The book was praised for its clarity, was widely translated and used as a textbook. In 1750 Pope Benedict XIV appointed her professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at the University of Bologna.
But Maria Agnesi had always pondered theology as well as mathematics and “the sublime sciences.” She had grown up in the mysterious shadow of Milanese churches, and had discussed church history and ideology with the Archbishop of Milan, had routinely written and received replies from the pope. In later life this prodigy, this strange pearl of the Enlightenment, finally realized her lifelong dream of joining a convent and died there at the age of eighty-one.