Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Myth #1: Maria's Father was a Math Professor

Myth: Maria Gaetana Agnesi's father was a math professor at the University of Bologna.

Fact: Pietro Agnesi was not a professor, or even a mathematician. As far as we know, he never even lived in Bologna. He was born into a family of wealthy silk merchants, but he may never have worked in the family business. Pietro Agnesi enjoyed socializing with scholars and noblemen. Some believe he educated Maria, and her younger sister, Teresa, to increase his own popularity in the upper class.

The myth that Maria's father was a professor continues to be published on the Internet (see About.com, for example) and in print references. [Wikipedia originally had it wrong, too, but they have since updated their information. However, there are other errors in their entry that I'll be addressing later.] This particular myth minimizes Maria's accomplishments in the field of mathematics--it's not as impressive for an 18th-century woman to have excelled in math if her father was a mathematician.

Here's another fact: By age fourteen, Maria Gaetana Agnesi was tackling tough problems in geometry and ballistics—the science of the flight patterns of bullets and cannonballs.  (The following image is courtesy of Florida's Educational Technology Clearinghouse.)

For an explanation of this drawing, along with original source information, see the description at the bottom of this page.

Ballistics was a most unusual topic for an eighteenth-century girl to study--few girls could even read or write at that time! Maria was likely fascinated by math, and that's why she focused on it the way she did. Not because of her father's knowledge of the subject. However, he was the one who allowed her to study and he provided her with the best tutors.

Have you come across this myth about Maria? If so, please post a comment telling me where. I'll try to contact the source to set the record straight.


  1. Love the idea for the blog, Carmela, and it looks pretty, too. I'll share the link with the nonfiction writers' list on Twitter!

  2. Thanks for stopping by, and for helping to spread the word, Lisa.

  3. HI

    Great information in this post and I think he was the one who allowed her to study and he provided her with the best tutors.

  4. thanks i got all the information i need 2 finish ma project

  5. http://press.princeton.edu/books/maor/sidebar_f.pdf
    asserts that Pietro was a professor of mathematics

  6. Dear Anonymous,
    Unfortunately, the document you reference used a source that still has the incorrect information about Maria Agnesi's father. Two recent biographies that set the record straight are:
    The World of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, Mathematician of God by Massimo Mazzotti
    A Biography Of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, An Eighteenth-Century Woman Mathematician by Antonella Cupillari
    Thanks for stopping by!

    1. I forgot to say, thanks for pointing this out to me, Anonymous. I'll see if I can notify the publisher.

  7. I'm curious, do you happen to know where this myth was first stated?

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  9. Thanks for stopping by, Evelyn. I don't have the answer to your question handy, but I'm planning to do more revisions soon. If I come across the answer, I'll post it here. Interestingly, I noticed that Wikipedia had the myth back in the entry again a few weeks ago, but when I checked just now, it's been changed again. :-)

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