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A Biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi

Edith Prentice Mendez, reviewer

A Biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, an Eighteenth-Century Woman Mathematician: With Translations of Some of Her Work from Italian into English. Antonella Cupillari, 2007. Edwin Mellen Press, Lewiston, NY. ISBN-13: 978-0-7734-5226-8; ISBN-10: 0-7734-5526-5, $119.95, hardback, 322 pages with index and bibliographic resources.

This book is a valuable resource, with carefully annotated documents by and about Maria Gaetana Agnesi newly translated into English, as well as commentary by Cupillari. The author's contributions are providing us with English translations of a biography of Agnesi written the year of her death, 1799, as well as of excerpts from Agnesi's calculus and algebra textbook Instituzioni Analitiche (Analytic Institutions), including Agnesi's discussion of the versiera or "free to move" curve, mistranslated into 18th century English as "witch" of Agnesi.

Agnesi's biography is fascinating and an easy read: tracing her career from the talented young girl shown off at her father's social gatherings to a serious scholar and writer of one of the earliest calculus textbooks, to a recluse who devoted the last half of her life to religion and care of poor and ill women. Cupillari's book is well documented with endnotes, footnotes, and bibliography. However, it is at times confusing due to inconsistent styles of citation and typographical errors. Cupillari analyzes her sources and takes a moderate view of Agnesi as neither a beginner nor an original discoverer, but a "bright and hard working scholar, and an excellent writer of a mathematical textbook for her times" (p. 239).

The mathematical excerpts include two on the versiera that would be accessible to students in a course on analytical geometry, as well as one on using the logarithmic curve in integration useful for an introductory calculus class. Together with the biographical source material, the book is a worthwhile addition to a personal, school or university library.

Edith Prentice Mendez, Associate Professor of Mathematics, Sonoma State University

See also the MAA Review by P. N. Ruane.

Edith Prentice Mendez, reviewer, "A Biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi," Convergence (June 2008)