1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Agnesi, Maria Gaetana
AGNESI, MARIA GAETANA (1718–1799), Italian mathematician, linguist and philosopher, was born at Milan on the 16th of May 1718, her father being professor of mathematics in the university of Bologna. When only nine years old she had such command of Latin as to be able to publish an elaborate address in that language, maintaining that the pursuit of liberal studies was not improper for her sex. By her thirteenth year she had acquired Greek, Hebrew, French, Spanish, German and other languages. Two years later her father began to assemble in his house at stated intervals 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 de Brosse’s Lettres sur l’Italie and in the Propositiones Philosophicae, which her father caused to be published in 1738. These displays, being probably not altogether congenial to Maria, who was of a retiring disposition, ceased in her twentieth year, and it is even said that she had at that age a strong desire to enter a convent. Though the wish was not gratified, she lived from that time in a retirement almost conventual, avoiding all society and devoting herself entirely to the study of mathematics. The most valuable result of her labours was the Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana, a work of great merit, which was published at Milan in 1748. 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), appeared at Paris in 1775; and an English translation of the whole work by John Colson (1680–1760), the Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge, was published in 1801 at the expense of Baron Maseres. Madame Agnesi also wrote a commentary on the Traite analytique des sections coniques of the marquis de l’Hopital, which, though highly praised by those who saw it in manuscript, was never published. She invented and discussed the curve known as the “witch of Agnesi” (q.v.) or versiera. In 1750, on the illness of her father, she was appointed by Pope Benedict XIV. to the chair of mathematics and natural Philosophy at Bologna. 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. After holding for some years the office of directress of the Hospice Trivulzio for Blue Nuns at Milan, she herself joined the sisterhood, and in this austere order ended her days on the 9th of January 1799.
Her sister, Maria Teresa Agnesi (1724–1780), a well-known Italian pianist and composer, was born at Milan in 1724. She composed several cantatas, two pianoforte concertos and five operas, Sofenisbe, Ciro in Armenia, Nitocri, Il Re Pastore and Insubria consolata.
See Antonio Francesco Frisi, Éloge historique de Mademoiselle Agnesi, translated by Boulard (Paris, 1807); Milesi-Mojon, Vita di M. G. Agnesi (Milan, 1836); J. Boyer, “La Mathématicienne Agnesi,” in the Revue Catholique des revues françaises et étrangères (Paris, 1897).