During the time of Laura Bassi and Maria Agnesi, there was another learned woman of mathematics and science. Maria Angela Ardinghelli was well-known during her time, although she has been overlooked from a historical perspective, or known simply as a translator of works by Stephen Hales. In fact, she was the only woman whose letters were read at the meetings of the Paris Academy of Sciences on a regular basis. Bertucci describes her as a de facto foreign correspondent of the scientific activities in Italy. She sent them meteorological data, natural history information about Naples, and reports of unusual medical cases.
Ardinghelli’s family was one of the oldest and most distinguished in Italy, having moved from Florence to Naples when the Medici family came to power. But Nicola, her father, married against his parents’ wishes and was punished accordingly. He was denied his hereditary titles and was restricted to a very modest fortune. Nicola and his wife, Caterina Piccillo, had two children, but Maria Angela’s brother died young, so she was raised an only child. Her father provided her with the best available tutors for her education. She studied mathematics, natural philosophy, English, French and Latin.
In 1734, Naples gained a new king, Charles of Bourbon, and became an autonomous kingdom for the first time in centuries. Charles wanted to revive the university and cultural life of the city. Fernando Spinelli, prince of Tarsia, organized a public library and museum, and one of Maria Angela’s tutors was curator of the “physics cabinet” and a teacher at the new Accademia Spinella. In 1747, to celebrate the opening of the library and birth of the crown prince, Spinelli dedicated a celebration to the king in which guests recited poems. Maria Angela was one of the ladies who spoke, and astonished everyone by composing her poem in Latin.
The Palazzo Tarsia was known for experiments with electricity and its association with Newton. It was also a place where Maria Angela could safely pursue knowledge and display her own talents. There she was seen as the protégé of Della Torre and her other teachers, rather than a woman “experimenting alone with men in the dark.” (I’m not really sure what the distinction is, because she is depicted in at least one image, while engaged in experiments, as the only woman surrounded by men.)
The Spinella Academy was intentionally modeled on the Royal Academy of Sciences in Paris, and Maria Angela contributed to this association by dedicating her translation of Stephen Hales’s Haemastaticks to the former French ambassador, the marquis De L’Hôpital. However, her translations were much more than literary works; they were annotated texts where she added commentary in footnotes, the dedication and a section titled “To the Reader.” In this way she was able to evaluate the science without exposing herself to ridicule.
In the case of Haemastaticks, she worked with both the English original and the French translation by François Bossier de Sauvages, and even corrected the French translation. She translated De Sauvages’ footnotes, repeated his calculations, and wrote her own footnotes. She also bolstered her own credibility by corresponding with the author to clarify the text. She was careful not to overstep the boundaries of modesty by not presuming to take the same position as De Sauvage, who replicated Hale’s experiments with a view of challenging them, but still made her mastery of the concepts clear with her commentary. When she did report on her own experiments, she framed the discussion as an invitation to explore with her, by following her thought process, as opposed to a challenge to the authority of her male colleagues.
Maria Angela’s efforts were very successful. A positive review by Giovanni Lami in the Florence’s Literary News brought her to the attention of other Italians; Hale was enormously pleased and encouraged her to translate his Vegetable Staticks as well; even De Sauvages was pleased in the end because of the increase in his international reputation. She did translate Vegetable Staticks with the result of increasing her reputation in France as well as Italy.
Her family was also supportive, and she began to host conversazioni which were well attended by both local academics and visiting foreigners. This is where she met Jean-Antoine Nollet, a French Abbé and physicist. Nollet and the academics at Palazzo Tarsia were both eager to solidify connections between Naples and France, so Della Torre introduced Nollet to Maria Angela.
Nollet was very impressed and spent several evenings at her home attending her conversazioni. They began a correspondence in which they exchanged academic works as well as discussing more personal matters, but he also encouraged his colleagues to correspond with her and to visit when they were in Naples. Their relationship was misunderstood by at least one colleague, partly because people had difficulty believing that a relationship between a man and woman, based on an interest in the physical world, could be without “suggestive overtones.”
Not only was Maria Angela’s family supportive, but she was devoted to them as well and had no desire to travel herself. She turned down a marriage proposal from a French architect as well as an invitation to become tutor to the princesses at Versailles. But she was happy to be a contact for visiting academics who wanted to experience the natural history of Naples. Over time, she became a mediator between scholars in Paris and Naples and was relied on to circulate papers and information coming from Paris.
In spite of this support, not everyone welcomed women into intellectual circles and at some point Maria Angela began to publish anonymously. Bertucci suggests that it is likely related to the death of her father which occurred sometime before 1765. Without a male protector, she ran the risk of losing her respectability. She didn’t give up scientific work, however she had to be more circumspect about her image.
Maria Angela did marry, sometime after the death of her mother, prior to 1777. Her husband, Carlo Crispo, was a magistrate in Calabria, in the south of the Kingdom of Naples. She continued her correspondence with scholars in Naples and France, and helped Crispo expand his own circle of contacts. She was able to help him advance in his career, eventually moving back to Naples where she helped him with his work and gave up science.
She left Naples during the revolution of 1799, but returned during the Napoleonic era. Over the years she had continued to teach privately and had a respectable income which sustained her during her 24 years as a widow, before her death in 1825.
Note: I couldn’t find an image of Ardinghelli in the public domain. There is a medallion which was sculpted of her that can be viewed here.
Bertucci, Paola, “The In/visible Woman: Mariangela Ardinghelli and the Circulation of Knowledge between Paris and Naples in the Eighteenth Century“, Isis, Vol. 104, No. 2 (June 2013), pp. 226-249.
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