In 1991, the people who are responsible for such things, named a crater on the planet Venus "Agnesi" in honor of this distinguished Italian scientist.
Agnesi's field was not astronomy, but mathematics. And while the planet Venus is often associated with the idea of romantic love, Maria was never married; in fact, she desired to be a nun. Her passion, it seems, was about ideas; not affairs of the heart.
As a young girl MARIA GAETANA AGNESI was called a "Walking Polyglot" and the "Seven Tongued Orator." At the age of nine she transcribed and delivered a discourse in Latin on the need for female education entitled, "Oratio qua ostenditur artium liberalium studia femineo sexu necitiquam abhorre." She spoke Greek at 11 and Hebrew at 13.
She was born on May 16, 1718, the first of 21 children of Pietro Agnesi a wealthy and educated man of Milan, Italy. Pietro's family had earned their wealth in the silk business. Her mother, one of Pietro's three wives was Anna Fortunato Brivio.
On July 16, 1739 the French writer Charles de Brosses attended a gathering at the Agnesi home to hear Maria Gaetana deliver and debate intellectual issues, in Latin, with other assembled guests. (Her younger sister, Maria Theresa, an accomplished harpsichordist and singer also performed that evening.) Of the 20 year old Maria Gaetana, de Brosses wrote,
[She is] neither ugly nor pretty, with a very simple and very sweet manner...she is much attached to the philosophy of Newton...I was much annoyed to hear it said that she wished to enter a convent, and it was not through need, for she is very rich.
De Brosses' visit occurred about a year after Maria had published her Propositiones Philosophicae which was a presentation and commentary on 191 philosophical theses.
But this remarkably intelligent woman, perhaps the first woman mathematician in the modern Western world, was acutely and obsessively private and humble. She disliked the public displays of her talent as orchestrated by her father. She wanted to be a nun. But Pietro was against the idea of his daughter joining a convent. He prevailed and Maria lived at home. However, she was reclusive and spent most of her time involved in her intellectual pursuits.
She pursued the field of mathematics. The Benedictine monk Father Ramiro Rampinelli was her tutor and her contributions to the field resulted in an honorary appointment to the mathematics chair at the University of Bologna by Pope Benedict XIV in 1750.
Her contribution came in the form of a book called Instituzioni analitiche ad uso della gioventu italiana (Analytical Institutions for the Use of the Youth of Italy). This was a 2-volume analysis of finite quantities and infinites published privately by Agnesi in Milan in 1748 (Vol. 1) and1749 (Vol. 2).
It is in this publication that Agnesi discusses the plane curve known as "versiera" which today because of a translation error is widely known as the "Witch of Agnesi."
The curve called "Witch of Agnesi" does not derive its name from the fact that it might look like a sketch of a witch's hat. The origin of the name appears to be a translation mistake made by the Englishman John Colson who translated Agnesi's 2 volume book. The Latin word versoria which means "a rope that turns a sail " becomes the Italian word la versiera meaning "free to move." Instead of la versiera Colson translated the Italian word l'aversiera which means "witch."
The book was widely accepted and praised as an important contribution to mathematics. It was translated into French in 1875 and Colson's English translation was published in 1801. (Parenthetically, in 1994 Iowa State University acquired a first edition of Agnesi's 2-volume book.)
After her father's death in 1752 Maria Gaetana devoted almost all of her time to her religious studies and to charitable work. She eventually moved out of her family's home to live and manage the Hospice Trivulgio, a home for poor and destitute women run by the order of the Blue Nuns. It is uncertain if at the end of her life she actually joined the order but having given all her material goods away she died penniless at the age of 81.