Maria Angela Ardinghelli – Italian Scientist and Translator (1730–1825)

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.

Engraving of the activities of the Académie des Sciences c. 1698 (source)

Engraving of the activities of the Académie des Sciences c. 1698 (source)

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 at his palace, and one of Maria Angela’s tutors was curator of the “physics cabinet” and a teacher at the new Academia 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.

Jean-Antoine Nollet (source)

Jean-Antoine Nollet (source)

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.
Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century by Marilyn Bailey Ogilivie

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Laura Bassi – Italian Physicist (1711 – 1778)

Laura Bassi by Carlo Vandi

Laura Bassi by Carlo Vandi (source)


The entrance of women into the sciences has been a long process beginning several centuries ago. It’s not easy to find these women in the 18th century, but those that made a name for themselves did so because they were far from ordinary. Admittance into this formerly all male club seems to have begun in Italy (at least for post-Renaissance Europe,) specifically the University of Bologna where Laura Bassi became the first woman professor of physics in Europe.

Born November 29, 1711, Laura Bassi was the only child in her family to survive to adulthood. As with many (maybe most) scientifically inclined women prior to the 20th century, she received an education because her father recognized her ability and brought tutors into their home. This was a privilege reserved for the well-to-do, if not exclusively for the aristocracy. Bassi’s father was a successful lawyer, but the family was not of the nobility.

From the age of five Laura was instructed in French, Latin, and mathematics by a cousin, and later by the family physician in philosophy, natural philosophy, metaphysics, and logic. Her abilities were known throughout the city attracting attention of people who would visit her home to meet her. Similar to the salons in France, the intellectual elite in Italy would gather in homes to discuss philosophy, literature, science, mathematics, etc. Laura seems to have been put on display in her home in much the same way Maria Agnesi was.

In 1732, in a public debate Laura presented and defended her ideas regarding Newton and the new physics. She was awarded her doctorate and offered a position teaching at the University of Bologna. This required another public examination where she was successful, becoming the first woman professor of physics in a European University. As with Maria Agnesi, there is disagreement among scholars as to the extent of her teaching responsibilities. Some think that she was limited to occasional lectures, others believe she had a full teaching load. It seems to be a matter of propriety. Lectures in public would attract both women and men, but teaching at the university would usually entail being alone in a classroom with all male students.

Medal commemorating Laura Bassi, Italy 1732 (source - Wellcome Images)

Medal commemorating Laura Bassi, Italy 1732 (source – Wellcome Images)

This situation was relieved when in 1738 she married Giovanni Guiseppe Veratti, a fellow scientist and professor. As a married woman, the university made allowances for Bassi to lecture in her home. Bassi and her husband had eight to twelve children. There is disagreement on the number of children, but baptismal records seem to support eight, five of whom survived to adulthood. Laura and her husband shared a love of science, created a laboratory in their home, and performed experiments together. Teaching from her home gave her more flexibility to perform experiments and to choose which topics she taught.

During her examination for her professorship, she attracted the attention of Cardinal Prospero Lambertini (later Pope Benedict XIV) who was impressed and extended his support to Laura in her studies. In 1745, he appointed her to an elite group of scholars known as the Benedettini in which she was the only woman. Originally intended to be a group of 24, Lambertini met with resistance when he wanted to appoint Bassi to one of the positions. He then added a twenty-fifth position for her. After Bassi’s death this seat remained vacant until the 1800s. The purpose of the Benedettini was to encourage scientific advancement in Italy. Each member was responsible for writing and presenting a paper to the pope each year. Lambertini also arranged for Bassi to have access to scholarly documents in the Vatican which were usually restricted to male scientists over the age of 24

The scientific community was small in Europe at the time and Bassi communicated with leading scientists. She appears to have been instrumental in getting Voltaire admitted to the Academy of Sciences at Bologna and I’m sure through him she would have been familiar with Emilie du Chatelet’s works on mathematics and physics. At the beginning of her career, Newton’s ideas were still new and somewhat controversial and it’s easy to believe that she may have had a hand in introducing them to Italy. Bassi’s surviving papers however, are related to compression of air, hydraulics, a couple of dissertations on mathematics, and later electricity.

Bassi took on additional teaching positions later in her life. In 1766, she assumed a position teaching physics for the Collegio Montalto, a free seminary where students were taught in professor’s homes and earned degrees in theology or law. In 1776, Bassi’s husband was an assistant to Paola Battista Balbi the Chair and Institute Professor of Experimental Physics when Balbi died leaving a vacancy. Although her husband would have been the obvious choice, Bassi petitioned to be considered for the post. It seems that her skills in mathematics made her a more logical choice and she received the appointment. When Bassi died two years later, her husband took the post and was later succeeded by their son Paolo keeping it in the family until 1796.

I had never taken notice of Laura Bassi until recently. She doesn’t appear at all in several books I have on women in science and math and where she does appear it is cursory. I’m not sure why, because she had a life long career in science. It could be because she didn’t publish major works that were accessible to a lay person. Her works were scholarly and original. Unlike Agnesi, who went on to do work among the poor and destitute after the death of her father, even though she was concerned for the poor, it wasn’t Bassi’s primary focus. And of course, Emilie Du Chatelet was a scientist, but also the lover of a famous man, Voltaire, and we all seem to love to hear about a scandalous woman. Regardless of the reason, we should take note of Laura Bassi. She had tremendous staying power, a long career in a man’s field, and she raised a family. Sounds like something that many contemporary women are trying to do and would be inspired by.

Oh and she has a crater on Venus named for her – what more could you ask from a woman!

Women in Science: Antiquity through the Nineteenth Century by Marilyn Bailey Ogilivie
Women in Science by H. J. Mozans
Laura Bassi“, Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2004

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Maria Gaetana Agnesi – 18th century mathematician

Maria Gaetana Agnesi, artist unknown (source)

Maria Gaetana Agnesi, artist unknown (source)

“How long will I have to do this?” must have been the thought that frequently ran through the mind of Maria Agnesi as she stood in her parlor on Friday nights.  Maria Gaetana Agnesi was the oldest of 21 children born into the family of Pietro Angesi.  The Agnesi family was a well to do family in Milan, Italy in the 18th century.  Pietro came from a merchant class family who had made their money in cloth goods.  The family owned many properties and had furnished them exquisitely.

Pietro’s grandfather, father, and uncle had built the business into a sort of empire.  For some unknown reason, Pietro was never trusted with the business.  Even when his father died, provision was made in his will that prevented him from making any decisions concerning the business without the approval of his uncle.  However, when his uncle died childless, the responsibility for the business fell entirely onto Pietro’s shoulders.

Pietro was a very ambitious man.  He had almost everything that he could want, materially.  The one thing he didn’t have was a position in the aristocracy.  He tried many things to be recognized as a member of this class which eventually ran up a huge debt.  One of these things was hosting “conversazione” on Friday nights.  There were many such events held around the city for the wealthy to indulge themselves.  Some were for music and dancing, some for gambling, but at the Agnesi household discussions of philosophy were held.  These events served their purpose and attracted many distinguished persons to the Agnesi home such as Monsieur Charles Brosses, president of the parliament of Burgundy and Frederick Christian, heir to the throne of Poland.

One thing Pietro never scrimped on, even when he was accumulating debt, was his children’s education.  He hired the best tutors from around Europe for both the boys and the girls.  This was during a time when women across Europe were rarely educated.  Genius was, however, recognized and Maria Gaetana was that – a child prodigy.  By the age of 11, she could speak, read, and write Italian, French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.  At the age of 9, she translated a treatise written in Italian into Latin, memorized it, and delivered the oration at one of her father’s “conversations”.  The treatise was on the education of women, arguing that they should be allowed access to “the fine arts and sublime sciences”.

She and her sister were regularly put on display in the salon of their family home.  Here her father entertained many wealthy and noble men.  Maria Gaetana was asked questions by the participants and she would expound on the subject.  She was adept at discussing philosophy as well as the sciences and mathematics.  She was brilliant, and the men who attended were amazed that she could discuss the philosophy of Descartes as easily as celestial mechanics or the theory of gravitation.  Her sister, Maria Teresa, was a composer.  She would play the harpsichord and sing, sometimes accompanied by Maria Gaetana on the viola.

Maria Gaetana (1718 – 1799) was basically shy and reserved person.  She didn’t enjoy being put on display, but was obedient to her father’s wishes.  A devout Catholic, at one point during her teens, she approached him to ask if she could be excused from further events.  She wanted to enter the cloister.  Her father refused to allow this and she continued participating.  Maria Gaetana never married and most of her time was spent teaching the younger children and after her mother (Anna Brivio) died in 1732, managing the household.  What time she could spare, she gave in helping ill and homeless people, primarily women.

First page of "Analitical Institutions", 1748 (source)

First page of “Analytical Institutions”, 1748 (source)

As she got older, one of Maria Gaetana’s responsibilities was to tutor her younger brothers in mathematics.  She had a passion for scholarship including mathematics and had absorbed works by Newton, Fermat, and Descartes among others.  She found all of the texts available to be inadequate for the task of teaching her younger siblings.  For this reason she decided to write her own.  Originally, it was intended to be used only for their lessons but 10 years after she began it, Analytical Institutions was published to wide acclaim.  It was a comprehensive look at mathematical analysis at the time, from algebra through differential and integral calculus, infinite series, and differential equations.  She managed to synthesize work from many of the masters including Newton and Leibnitz to write a text that made these topics accessible to the lay person.

Maria had previously published Propositiones Philosophicae a volume of about 200 essays on various topics presented at her father’s conversations.  But she is primarily known for Analytical Institutions.  It is the earliest surviving math text written by a woman and was translated into English and French for use as a textbook.  She was honored by such people as Pope Benedict XIV with a gold medal and Empress Maria Theresa with jewels.  She was also elected to the Bologna Academy of Sciences.  This position included a faculty post.  There is some disagreement as to whether or not she ever taught there.

Whether or not Maria Gaetana taught outside the home, this would have ended when her father died in 1752.  He had left the family in tremendous debt and most of their possessions had to be sold to cover it.  This changed Maria’s lifestyle and set her free to pursue her passion.  Until her death in 1799, Maria Gaetana gave selflessly to others.  She worked with the ill and homeless people of Milan with both her time and what resources she had left.

The "Witch of Agnesi" curve (source)

The “Witch of Agnesi” curve (source)

Maria Gaetana Agnesi is most well known for a curve that she worked with called the “Witch of Agnesi.”  Known for, that is, outside of Italy.  In Italy she is known as a great humanitarian and woman of God.  She was buried in a common grave with 15 other women and her childhood home was destroyed during WWII.  But the city of Milan is proud of their daughter and there are monuments that have been erected to celebrate her life.

Bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, beneath the arcades of the courtyard of the Palace of Brera at Milan. Photographer: Giovanni Dall'Orto (source)

Bust of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, beneath the arcades of the courtyard of the Palace of Brera at Milan. Photographer: Giovanni Dall’Orto (source)

The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God
by Massimo Mazzotti
Women in Mathematics by Lynn Osen

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