Nevertheless, historians of science have paid little attention to it. 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. One of the most acclaimed female child prodigies was Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718–1799), whose 300th birthday we celebrate this year. Indeed, for Agnesi, mathematics could also make a difference in spiritual life. Benedict was sympathetic to Agnesi’s enlightened Catholicism. The “thinking uterus,” a term coined by Zecchini, captured the imagination of Bolognese physicians, literati, and high society. It isn’t clear how Agnesi recovered but it was later credited to the direct intercession of Saint Cajetan, her patron saint. 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. Milan was under French military occupation, and religious processions were temporarily forbidden. The circumstances of her physical disappearance are emblematic of the process of erasure that was already under way at the time of her death. In fact, she gradually abandoned scientific life. 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. And how did a woman come to be perceived as a credible mathematician? 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.
Entering a Conversazione
Agnesi was born in 1718 to a wealthy Milanese family, which had built its fortune in the luxury textile trade. 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 Bologna, for instance, Petronio Zecchini published a booklet in 1771 on how women think. In most cases, this exceptionality was fashioned and controlled through the phenomenon of the child prodigy. 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. Remarkably, Bologna already had a woman on its faculty: Laura Bassi, professor of experimental physics, and, yes, another former child prodigy. He tried to make his mark by distancing himself from those “brutal philosophers” who, like Conti, argued that matter can think. But they also avoided the claim that women were intellectually unfit for science.
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. During the first half of the 18th century, in certain parts of Europe — northern Italy in particular — the most celebrated child prodigies were girls. Ultimately, calculus was, for her, an extension of Euclidean geometry — it should therefore achieve the same level of precision and certainty. Pietro quarreled with the governor of Milan on this particular issue. Two French gentlemen recounted their trip to the Agnesi conversazione in their letters home. 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. 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 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. 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. Pietro Agnesi was zealous in supporting his daughter’s education and scientific work. 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. Manzoni too was a child prodigy, who in her 20s became an authority in the study of Latin patristic literature. 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. In the English translation of 1801, this curve was called the “Witch of Agnesi” — probably a mistranslation, but a telling 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. Gradually, however, new evidence, deemed scientific at the time, transformed the debate, characterizing the female mind as unsuited to rational thought. Now, however, she had other plans in mind. She also wanted to be exempt from going to the theater, parties, and the other rituals of the Milanese elite. For about an hour, they discussed theories of body-soul relations, a primary scientific concern at the time. 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. These were toolboxes for practitioners who wanted to use calculus to tackle empirical problems. She, however, grew impatient with the life he decreed. 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. She was not on the original program for this visit, but the prince wanted to meet the filosofessa. Most often, of course, the recognized genius is indeed male. Up to that point, research on calculus had appeared in various books and periodicals published across Europe. She financially supported women who were heads of households, and offered assistance to ailing women who could not take care of themselves. 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. She faced the new task with her usual determination, pushing out protégés of the Austrian governor, who had turned it into a lucrative business. The two elegant volumes of Analytical Institutions, were published in 1748. In fact, he hoped that more Catholic scholars would engage with the new science, thereby returning Catholicism to the forefront of Western culture. The book was dedicated to Agnesi, who had been “wise enough” to renounce her scientific career. While we have no direct evidence of his motives, the family’s finances are revealing. His friend, who asked permission to speak in French, stepped in after, changing the subject to the properties of certain geometrical curves. Interestingly enough, like Agnesi, Conti placed the capacity for attention at the center of intellectual activity. 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. She taught poor girls and organized a network of parish schools. 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. Was there a connection between the brief acknowledgment of young, genius girls and their eventual demise?
Agnesi’s glittering life was not without its costs. The young man makes history. She wanted to dress down, to detach herself from his obsession with luxury. JULY 11, 2018
This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. The offer came from Bologna, one of the largest and most prestigious universities in Europe. Agnesi’s work stood out within the existent literature, in part because rival texts were typically just collections of examples and problem-solving techniques. 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. In return, he expected her to engage in domestic performances at his behest. ¤
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
The raising fortune of the “education of the Virgin” as a theme in paintings across Catholic Europe was emblematic of this reformist spirit. Closer to Agnesi, in Milan, other women were making their presence felt in the literary world. 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. She wanted to concentrate on studying what really mattered to her: mathematics and theology.
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. 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. They were not, by any means, treated the same as boys were. 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. 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. 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. Savini de’Rossi, like other educated women, was convinced that modern science was on her side in the battle for cognitive equality. Agnesi eventually grew into a learned woman, or filosofessa, and, in 1748, became the first woman to publish a mathematics book. 18, Genius
To receive the LARB Quarterly Journal, become a member or donate here. He understood that capacity however, in very different terms: attention was a function of the number and duration of the cerebral fibers’ vibrations. 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. But it was thanks to Agnesi, that his conversazione had reached international visibility: he had no choice but to accept her demands. They were puzzled by this unusual request but agreed. Agnesi seems to have been part of a phenomenon that historians have long struggled to understand. 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. 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. She was determined to take part in the world, and to help the people who needed her. 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. In fact, it tapped into a broader issue circulating at the time. This was undoubtedly too much loss even for such a brave and determined adolescent. 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. The pontiff thus granted Bologna, his home city, the honor of having two famous learned women — Bassi and Agnesi — on its faculty. These include the relatively benevolent views of enlightened Catholics, who were sympathetic to women’s education and involvement in public life. Agnesi now played the gracious host, greeting the guests, addressing them in French, German, Spanish, or Greek. 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. 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. 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. To close friends, she explained that she had written her book of mathematics because she hoped it would be useful to scholars and students. Decades later, famed mathematician Joseph-Louis Lagrange still recommended its second volume as the best available introduction to calculus. But she did this using the new form of continental calculus. 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. It was in fact, so impressive that it was published in 1729, in a collection of essays on the question of women’s education. During the last three decades of her life, Agnesi directed the female section of a large charitable institution assisting the urban poor and infirm. But he could not, he said, exclude the possibility that the body might act on the mind, and affect its cognitive abilities. She offered to join her father’s conversazione, but more sparingly, at her will and not his. The malady seemed to last about a year, after which Agnesi dutifully returned to her studies and public engagements. When the discussion ended, Agnesi’s younger sister, Maria Teresa, herself a musical child prodigy, played the harpsichord and sang. 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. Newtonianism was just then spreading across the continent, and Agnesi was soon privy to its concepts and ideas. 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. “She spoke like an angel,” one of the Frenchmen commented. 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. Instead, we need to focus on Agnesi’s own experience, and how she made sense of the world she inhabited. She was doing her own thing. This kind of gathering was called a conversazione — literally, a conversation. 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. Meanwhile, the haughty learned woman was becoming a recognizable character in innumerable plays and novels. Pietro also made investments specifically designed to elevate the family’s social status, rather than yield any significant income. A boy, tutored by his father, captures the public imagination. 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. She was also granted imperial patronage for her work as a poet. In order to live like nobility, the household overspent — constantly. Why was so much attention dedicated to identifying and nurturing female academic talent in northern Italy? She was buried quickly, at night, in a common grave; later attempts to identify her remains were unsuccessful. More specifically, how did Agnesi find her way through a rigidly gendered scientific environment and establish herself as a legitimate scholar? She was determined to refine her understanding of key concepts and techniques and so she plied him with questions. Even the aging Giacomo Casanova, who was living in Bologna at the time, paid attention. This remarkable story is, of course, not the beginning of progressive female inclusion. The discipline was undergoing rapid expansion mainly because it could so powerfully represent varied empirical phenomena. These were well-structured theatrical performances framed by music and refreshments. She also wanted to live in the real world — “in the century,” as she would put it. 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. What made Agnesi such an intriguing public figure was her resistance to familiar types of womanhood. Instead, she aimed to teach the reader a way of reasoning, characterized by extreme intellectual rigor. 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 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. 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. 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. In order to ensure consistency and methodological cohesion, Agnesi oversaw all aspects of the publication. Pietro helped her assemble an impressive library, purchase scientific instruments, and work with first-rate mentors. At one point, she turned a wing of her family palazzo into an infirmary. Two years later, she became the first woman invited to lecture on mathematics at a university. Agnesi died of pneumonia in 1799. Conti’s was just one of many physiological arguments against female education articulated across Europe at the time. Her voice tells us of a world that we have just begun to explore. She was appalled by the living conditions of the poor women and children she saw on the street. The academic senate approved the appointment in 1750. 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. 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. Typically, these debates would take the form of an academic disputation. The Frenchmen, who had entered the palazzo with some skepticism, left in awe. Agnesi’s systematic approach, by contrast, was based on an entirely different perspective. 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. Agnesi certainly did just that. 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. 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. And yet, for a brief period in European history, the story went a little differently. What had happened? To the two Frenchmen she said that she was sorry that their first meeting had taken that peculiar form. 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. 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. After the clamorous argument, he suffered a “violent chest pain” and died. 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. An ample vibration corresponded with a clear idea, a feeble vibration with a confused one. A family friend recalled that for a while it looked as if Pietro had been struck by lightning. 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. He purchased, for example, unproductive land that came with a feudal title. Commoners, like Francesca Manzoni, also rose to scholarly fame. Agnesi called these attempts to naturalize women’s cognitive inferiority a “philosophical aberration” but they gained a strong foothold in the culture. 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. This difficult period in Agnesi’s life was marked by a documentary blackout. Agnesi’s book was the first well-structured and accessible presentation of this burgeoning mathematical field. 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. Her father hired physicians who specialized in “convulsions,” and though they tried various regimes of physical exercise, it was to little avail. One of the Frenchmen described putting his glass of iced water down to address the lady in rusty Latin. Overall, the female body was simply unfit for rigorous thought. 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. A serious assessment of her scientific achievements, however, would have to wait even longer. 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. 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. The name stuck. At nine, she delivered an oration defending the right of women to access all kinds of knowledge, including in the sciences. 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. Eventually, Agnesi told her father that she would become a nun if their routine didn’t change. As a consequence, the fibers constituting female organs lacked solidity and elasticity. 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. At that time, calculus was the newest and most promising branch of mathematics. 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. 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. Agnesi reached Riccati through one of her tutors, and they began a rich correspondence. 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. For her, the notion of “attention” thus brought scientific and religious life together in a profound and unexpected way. By the age of five, she was already entertaining friends and visitors by speaking foreign languages and reciting poetry. On a more serious note, Casanova also argued that minds were shaped by education and social condition rather than physical states. He later confessed to a friend that it wasn’t long before she was taking his suggestions in directions he could not have imagined. 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. Why on earth did Agnesi decide to study advanced mathematics? Agnesi was essentially rediscovered, around 1900, by the author of her first modern biography, the early Italian feminist Luisa Anzoletti. In more pedagogical terms — the terms that concerned Agnesi — the central question was: should women be allowed to study whatever they wished? Grudgingly, the 20-year-old Agnesi got in the gilded carriage sent for her, and duly performed two scientific disputations as brilliantly as ever. There were new and modern ideas about liberty and justice, and perhaps the time had come to question women’s subordinate status. He achieves remarkable things by adolescence; his genius is performed for public spectacle; his life and work become part of public record. Intense study and continual performances probably contributed to a mysterious “malady” in her teenage years. She had not been trained to keep silent. Her father Pietro, however, was determined to give his daughter an extensive and advanced education, hiring the best tutors in the humanities and sciences. Zecchini, an anatomist and a young professor of medicine, worked in the shadow of famed anatomist Anna Morandi. 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. 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. A significant number of women were able to join the debate. Charity was another pillar of her religiosity. In one manuscript fragment, for example, Agnesi described feeling her soul “rise” through such meditation. 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.
The Thinking Uterus
By the 1770s, physiological arguments for the intellectual inferiority of women had become mainstream science. Some of these evenings were well documented. 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. 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. His daughter’s extraordinary talent was a key element in this strategy, because it attracted the attention of Milanese and imperial elites. Women were therefore incapable of sound and systematic reasoning. 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. 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. 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. Misogyny was scientized, especially in places where women played a significant role in scientific life. The monologue, which was probably a Latin translation exercise written by her tutor, stunned the audience gathered at her family’s palazzo. 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. Jacopo Riccati, one of the pioneers of calculus, lived in the Republic of Venice, whose very existence depended on the management of watercourses. 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. 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. 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. 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. By the 1730s, she had grown into a learned and combative adolescent, but unlike her brothers, she could not seek admission to boarding school. 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. One of the texts that contributed to this “aberration” was a widely-circulated letter written by the natural philosopher Antonio Conti. 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 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. ¤
The myth of the child prodigy is familiar to all of us. 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. With the enlightened Catholics, the learned woman was an exception; according to these new scientific theories, however, she simply couldn’t exist. She knew perfectly well that she was stepping on toes. 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. Her book was therefore distinctive — it focused on the new mathematics itself rather than its applications. 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. These were difficult years in Milan — years of war and stagnation — and Agnesi could see moral and physical destitution right outside her palazzo. The worst of it seemed to strike when Agnesi was 14, after she lost her mother and her favorite tutor. 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.