Celebrating Women’s History through Fiction

March is Women’s History Month, the perfect time to celebrate the two eighteenth-century Italian sisters who inspired the novel Playing by Heart: composer Maria Teresa Agnesi and mathematician and humanitarian Maria Gaetana Agnesi.


Long before God inspired me to write Playing by Heart, I’d set out to write a nonfiction biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi. I have a bachelor’s degree in math and computer science, but I never heard of Gaetana until I came across her name in an article about little-known women of history. The more I learned about her, the more fascinated I became. I wanted to write a biography for young readers that would not only inspire girls interested in math, but that would also tell the story of a woman who turned her back on her celebrity status to serve God.


Born in Milan, Italy in 1718, Gaetana was the eldest child of Pietro Agnesi, a wealthy man who longed to become a nobleman. After discovering how intelligent Gaetana was, Agnesi hired tutors to teach her subjects typically reserved for boys, such as Latin, Greek, philosophy, astronomy, and mathematics. She learned seven languages by her teen years and eventually wrote a math textbook. The two-volume book was the first to cover everything from basic algebra and geometry to the recently discovered calculus. Pope Benedict XIV, who had studied math himself, was so impressed by the book that he nominated Gaetana to be a mathematics professor at the University of Bologna. She would have been the world’s first female math professor, but she turned down the position. She felt called to help the poor instead.


I spent several years writing and revising the biography about Gaetana. While researching her life, I learned about her younger sister, Teresa, who was a gifted musician, singer, and composer. Their father regularly held academic meetings in their home to show off both the girls’ talents.


When I couldn’t find a publisher for the biography, I began writing a novel inspired by the lives of the two sisters. I’d been a fan of historical novels for years, but I’d never considered writing one before. So I immersed myself in learning about the genre as well as in researching the details of life in eighteenth-century Milan.


The novel’s original title was The Second Salvini Sister. I based my main character, Emilia Salvini, on composer Teresa Agnesi, and I gave Emilia an older sister, Maria, who was modeled on Gaetana. I incorporated several events from the Agnesi sisters’ lives into the story. For example, the scene of Maria Salvini’s speech defending the education of women is based on Gaetana’s first public speech at age nine.


Another real-life event I wanted to include in the novel was a 1739 visit to Milan by future Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. I was thrilled to find a primary source describing that event. Translating a document written in eighteenth-century Italian proved painstaking. Still, it was worth the effort. The document contained wonderful details that helped add authenticity to Playing by Heart. I also learned that then Archduchess Maria Theresa participated in the Ritual of the Holy Nail at the Duomo Cathedral in May 1739. Here’s an excerpt from the scene in the novel describing the ritual:


“My first glimpse of the archduchess came the next day, which happened to be the Feast of the Cross. Our family joined the crowd inside the Duomo to participate in the twice-yearly ritual of the Holy Nail, a relic believed to be one of the nails from the cross of Christ. The Nail is stored in a crystal case set in the center of an enormous gold cross suspended high inside the cathedral’s dome. The cross can only be reached via the Nivola—a mechanical, cloud-shaped lift said to have been designed by Leonardo da Vinci himself. The lift sits behind the Duomo’s main altar. From where we stood, I could see neither the Nivola nor the three cathedral priests who climbed into it.”


The ritual is still performed annually in Milan, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. You can watch video clips of the ceremony on YouTube. You’ll find a brief overview with English narration here or the full ceremony in Italian here.


The Agnesi sisters were well-known in their day. However, that fame did not bring them happiness. Gaetana disliked her celebrity status. She was devoutly religious and longed to serve the poor. Around age 18, she asked her father’s permission to become a nun, but he refused. Later, when her sister wished to marry a poor nobleman named Pietro Antonio Pinottini, their father refused her as well. Instead, Agnesi used his daughters to attract members of Milan’s high society to his home as part of his quest to attain noble status.


It wasn’t until Pietro Agnesi’s death in 1752 that the sisters were finally able to live the lives they felt called to. By then, Gaetana was nearly 34 years old. She quickly traded her inheritance for a small annual stipend and devoted the rest of her life to helping the poor. Although she never became a nun, I think of her as the Mother Teresa of Milan.


Teresa Agnesi married Pietro Antonio Pinottini and remained active in Milan’s music scene for many years. In 1770, she was among those who welcomed a barely fourteen-year-old Mozart on his first visit to Milan. Little is known of her life after that, except that she and her husband struggled financially.


Writing Playing by Heart was more challenging—and more rewarding—than I expected. I still believe the true story of Maria Gaetana Agnesi’s life needs to be told for young readers. I’ve completely revised the biography I wrote and hope to find a publisher. Meanwhile, you can read more about her at a website I created: www.MGAgnesi.com. The site also includes information about Maria Teresa Agnesi and a YouTube clip of modern musicians performing her work.


The Agnesi sisters found ways to use their God-given talents despite the limitations for women of their time. I think it fitting to remember and honor them during Women’s History Month.

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