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Maria Gaetana Agnesi: Mathematics and the Making of the Catholic Enlightenment

Massimo Mazzotti
Isis
Vol. 92, No. 4 (Dec., 2001), pp. 657-683
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3080337
Page Count: 28
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Maria Gaetana Agnesi: Mathematics and the Making of the Catholic Enlightenment
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Abstract

Maria Gaetana Agnesi (1718-1799) is known as the author of a textbook on calculus that appeared in Milan in 1748. For the first time a woman was able to establish herself as a legitimate mathematician and publish her work. This essay reconstructs the religious and scientific culture in which the textbook originated and considers lesser-known aspects of Agnesi's life and thought. It argues that Agnesi was a principal exponent of the "Catholic Enlightenment" in Italy and that her spiritual practice, pious activity, and innovative pedagogical ideas profoundly shaped her approach to mathematics. The study suggests that the reformist culture of the Catholic Enlightenment provided the conditions that enabled a few talented women to access privileged forms of knowledge and social life; it may be one factor that accounts for the unusual presence of learned women in Italian scientific institutions during the early eighteenth century.

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