One of the joys of looking into history is re-discovering those amazing individuals who accomplished things that positively affected the lives of those around them, but have now been forgotten. One such true story is a about a little girl who was born into a wealthy family in Milan, Italy in 1718. The first born of her father’s 21 children, this child stood out as exceptional! So much so that in a day and time when females were not educated beyond what was needed to be a good homemaker, the child’s father recognized that she was blessed with a very unusual intelligence and sensitivity.
Everyone could see that Maria Agnesi was exceptional. A sonnet was written and published to praise the superior intelligence of the child when she was only five years old! Her father, Pietro Agnesi, hired the best available tutors for her, all learned men from the Catholic Church. They worked with little Maria explaining in detail the answers to her many questions. When she was seven she gave her life to Jesus and was given a copy of the book The Imitation of Christ which contained a set of rules of spiritual discipline by which she attempted to live thereafter. She began to grow in her understanding of the need to have a personal relationship with her Savior, Jesus.
Maria’s understanding of science, philosophy, religion, math and languages was so extensive that her father began to arrange evenings to “show off her talents” to the influential of Europe by hosting gatherings at his substantial palazzio. Here young Maria would discuss and debate topics of interest to the guests in Latin, the language of learning, or in their native tongues. By the time she was thirteen, Maria had mastered Latin, Greek, Hebrew, German, Spanish, French and several other languages in addition to her native Italian. These public displays greatly pleased Maria’s father and Maria’s fame spread. She was known as the “Walking Polyglot.”
At one such event in 1727 when Maria was nine, she delivered a lengthy speech in Latin defending the benefits of allowing women to learn the sciences. The speech had been written in Italian by her tutor, but she had translated it into perfect Latin and presented it to the guests, some of whom were influential senators and dignitaries. The audience was so captivated by the performance that they had it published in Maria Agnesi’s name. She dedicated the publication to the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria who sent her some beautiful jewels in appreciation.
Maria was a gentle person with a tender heart for others. While she always obeyed and pleased her father by entertaining his friends at the public debates, she longed for a quiet and private life of service more in keeping with her faith. She did not like the fine clothes, trips to the theater, dancing at balls and all of the other empty entertainment required of her as a member of the wealthy class in Milan. These feelings became especially pronounced after her mother died when she was twelve and her father remarried.
In addition to performing at the palazzio, Maria was expected to teach her younger brothers, of whom there were many. She especially loved mathematics, the language God used to “create the universe.” She found it comforting and reassuring that God who created math was never changing and could be counted upon just as the study of numbers demonstrated. All of Maria’s teaching of her siblings was woven together with the truths of the Bible. She could not separate her love of Christ from the lessons that she taught.
However, Maria’s desire for a simpler life caring for the poor was growing and at last when she was twenty she insisted that she leave home and enter a convent. Her father was devastated. He could not bear the thought of his precious daughter leaving him and the family, so a compromise was reached. Maria would remain at home, though living in a separate wing of the house. She would be allowed to dress simply and modestly, not participate in high society, would no longer be required to participate in public debates and would be allowed to attend church whenever she wished.
Two things happened as a result of this new found freedom. First, Maria turned her attention to the study of mathematics, abandoning philosophy. As she sought to teach her brothers advanced math during this time, Maria realized that there was no well written text available, so she embarked on a ten-year project writing a two volume book with many examples to explain everything from algebra to calculus. She wrote it in Italian so that it would help the youth of her country. Maria Agnesi was the first woman in history to write a math text and was so appreciated that she was named to the chair of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at the University of Bologna by Pope Benedict XIV at a time when women were not even allowed to attend the university!
However, Maria had already “retired” from her scholarly life to pursue her greater calling. She began to take poor, sick and dying women from the streets into her wing of her father’s home to care for them. By 1750, her father became very ill and Maria nursed him for two years until his death. Now released from her obligation to teach her brothers, Maria was free to pursue her passion of ministering Christ’s love to the poor. She operated several homes for the care of the poor, sick, demented and dying. She spent her entire fortune in this way, even selling the jewels given her by the Austrian Empress and establishing the first hospice in Italy.
Maria Agnesi lived out her final years in the home for the poor which she had directed for so many years. She was buried January 9, 1799 in a pauper’s grave with fifteen other women from the hospice. She had poured out all she had to help care for others for the sake of her love for Christ.