Mathematical Treasure: Francesco Algarotti’s Newtonianism for the Ladies

Cynthia J. Huffman (Pittsburg State University)

Francesco Algarotti was an Italian polymath, philosopher, and author during the Age of the Enlightenment. One of his books, Il newtonianismo per le dame ovvero dialoghi sopra la luce e i colori (Newtonianism for the ladies, or dialogues on light and colours), was instrumental in popularizing Newtonianism in continental Europe. The book consists of a series of six conversations in which Newton’s ideas and experiments on light and colors are explained to a fictional marchioness. The first edition was published in 1737, missing the usual permissions, and with a forged imprint of Naples on the title page. According to Massimo Mazzotti's "Newton for ladies:  gentility, gender, and radical culture," “due to the intervention of religious authorities Algarotti’s radical Newtonianism became gradually less visible in subsequent editions and translations.” The Linda Hall Library has three editions: the first 1737 Italian edition (which was on the Roman Catholic church’s 1739 list of prohibited books), a 1738 French edition (available online at, and a 1739 Italian edition. Another interesting thing about the first edition is the frontispiece, which is a portrait of Algarotti and Émilie du Châtelet portraying the characters in the book. (Algarotti spent some time with Émilie du Châtelet and Voltaire at her estate of Cirey while he was finishing the book.)

Frontispiece for Francesco Algarotti's Il newtonianismo per le dame.

The title page of the first edition:

Title page of Francesco Algarotti's Il newtonianismo per le dame.

A complete digital scan of the 1737 first edition in Italian, Il Newtonianismo per le dame ovvero dialoghi sopra la luce e i colori (call number QC19 .A48 1737) is available in the Linda Hall Library Digital Collections, along with the 1738 French edition (call number QC19 .A5 1738), and the 1739 Italian edition (call number QC19 .A48 1739).

Images in this article are courtesy of the Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology and used with permission. The Linda Hall Library makes available all existing digital images from its collection that are in the public domain to be used for any purpose under the terms of a Creative Commons License CC by 4.0. The Library’s preferred credit line for all use is: “Courtesy of The Linda Hall Library of Science, Engineering & Technology.”


Mazzotti, Massimo. "Newton for Ladies: Gentility, Gender and Radical Culture." The British Journal for the History of Science 37, no. 2 (June 2004): 119–146. Stable URL:

“Francesco Algarotti.” Wikipedia.

“Newtonianism.” Wikipedia.

Index to Mathematical Treasures