The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God

Kathleen Ambruso Acker, reviewer

The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Mathematics) by Massimo Mazzotti, The Johns Hopkins University Press,2007. ISBN-10: 0801887097, $49.95.

Mazzotti first introduces Maria Agnesi as a precocious young lady raised in a wealthy household. Her father, Pietro, nurtured her intellect by providing her with private tutors, while simultaneously attempting to advance his own social standing by encouraging Maria's participation in the Italian tradition of domestic intellectual discussions with guests of stature, the conversazione.  At the tender age of nine, she gave an oration in Latin, defending "…the right of women to study the fine arts and the sublime sciences." Her passion for this topic impressed the audience in attendance at the conversazione so much the discourse was published in a pamphlet to honor her.

From Mazzotti, we get the clear impression that the feelings expressed in that lecture never dwindled as Agnesi matured, and there is evidence that the Italian culture appreciated her sentiment.  A societal transformation, now known as the Catholic Enlightenment, encouraged educating young women from all backgrounds. Maria Agnesi's private education reflected the rigor set in Jesuit educational standards, but with a curriculum molded more to her own interests. 

Early in Mazzotti's text, the reader is treated to glimpses of Maria's mathematical interests, but only glimpses. The mathematical notes tend to be incidental to the reporting of who was tutoring the young girl at the moment.  Later in the text, the more mathematical discussions tend toward the philosophical. Maria Agnesi "believed that mathematics was the only field in which the human intellect could reach certainty; certainty derived from evident ness; and evident ness could be found in the intellectual perception of geometric truths, not in the manipulation of algebraic algorithms (p. 117)."

Throughout her life, Agnesi was drawn to performing charitable works. After the death of her father, she spent more and more time ministering to the poor, old and ill. She opened an infirmary within the family compound, and later ran a charity to help "the urban poor and invalid."  

Mazzotti's portrayal of her deep commitment to help those in need is poignant. It is not hard for the reader to feel the passion and respect Mazzotti has for his subject and all aspects of her life and work.  It is Mazzotti's discussion of Agnesi's development of her seminal calculus text that best satiates the reader.  Mazzotti's text is many things: well written, historically detailed, and descriptive. What stands out is his depiction of Maria Gaetana Agnesi as humble, kind, and mathematically talented.

Kathleen A. Acker, Ph.D.

See also the MAA Review by Amy Shell-Gellasch.