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Mathematical Treasure: Francesco Algarotti’s Newtonianism for the Ladies

Author(s): 
Cynthia J. Huffman (Pittsburg State University)

Francesco Algarotti was an Italian polymath, philosopher, and author during the Age of the Enlightenment. One of his books, Il newtonianismo per le dame ovvero dialoghi sopra la luce e i colori (Newtonianism for the ladies, or dialogues on light and colours), was instrumental in popularizing Newtonianism in continental Europe. The book consists of a series of six conversations in which Newton’s ideas and experiments on light and colors are explained to a fictional marchioness. The first edition was published in 1737, missing the usual permissions, and with a forged imprint of Naples on the title page. According to Massimo Mazzotti's "Newton for ladies:  gentility, gender, and radical culture," “due to the intervention of religious authorities Algarotti’s radical Newtonianism became gradually less visible in subsequent editions and translations.” The Linda Hall Library has three editions: the first 1737 Italian edition (which was on the Roman Catholic church’s 1739 list of prohibited books), a 1738 French edition (available online at http://lhldigital.lindahall.org/cdm/ref/collection/color/id/33627, and a 1739 Italian edition. Another interesting thing about the first edition is the frontispiece, which is a portrait of Algarotti and Émilie du Châtelet portraying the characters in the book. (Algarotti spent some time with Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire at her estate of Cirey while he was finishing the book.)

Frontispiece for Francesco Algarotti's Il newtonianismo per le dame.

The title page of the first edition:

Title page of Francesco Algarotti's Il newtonianismo per le dame.

A complete digital scan of the 1738 French edition, Le Newtonianisme pour les dames, ou, Entretiens sur la lumiere, sur les couleurs, et sur l'attraction / traduits de lÌtalien, is available in the Linda Hall Library Digital Collections. The call number is QC19.A5 1738 for the 1738 French edition, QC19.A48 1737 for the 1737 first edition in Italian, and QC19.A48 1739 for the 1739 Italian edition.

Images in this article are courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology and used with permission. The images may be downloaded and used for the purposes of research, teaching, and private study, provided the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology is credited as the source. For other uses, check out the LHL Image Rights and Reproductions policy.

References

Mazzotti, Massimo. "Newton for Ladies: Gentility, Gender and Radical Culture." The British Journal for the History of Science 37, no. 2 (June 2004): 119–146. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4028327.

“Francesco Algarotti.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francesco_Algarotti.

“Newtonianism.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Newtonianism.

Index to Mathematical Treasures

Cynthia J. Huffman (Pittsburg State University), "Mathematical Treasure: Francesco Algarotti’s Newtonianism for the Ladies," Convergence (January 2017)

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