Francesco Algarotti, Il newtonianismo per le dame

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On Francesco Algarotti, Il newtonianismo per le dame
Massimo Mazzotti, Newton for Ladies
pag. 1

Francesco Algarotti’s Newtonianism for the ladies, or dialogues on light and colours (1737) was an eighteenth-century best seller. It was also one of the main channels through which Newtonian ideas reached the general public in continental Europe. The book offered a description of some of Newton’s experiments on the nature of light and colours in the form of a genteel dialogue between a chevalier (cavaliere) and a marchioness (la marchesa di E***). Through an enjoyable, mundane, and apparently light-hearted conversation, past doctrines about the nature of matter and light were sketched, considered, and proved mistaken. Along the way, Algarotti gracefully disposed of contemporary anti-Newtonian philosophers as well. At the end of her initiation into the true philosophy the marchioness couldn’t but agree that Newton’s theory of light, and indeed his entire philosophical system, provided a veritable description of the functioning of the machine of the world.1
The book is divided into six dialogues taking place on five consecutive days. The dialogues are staged in a villa near Lake Garda, in the mainland part of the Venetian Republic. The country villa was a typical site of leisure, where the Venetian upper-classes would spend the hot summer days gambling, reading poetry, and enjoying conversation. Algarotti skilfully used the possibilities offered by the various spaces of the villa (dining room, gallery of paintings, garden and fountains) to stage the spectacle of Newtonian experimental philosophy. In the first dialogue the chevalier is reading aloud a poem celebrating the Bolognese Professor Laura Bassi as a Newtonian philosopher. This canzone had been published by Algarotti himself in 1732 to celebrate Bassi's graduation from the University of Bologna. A reference to the complex nature of light stimulates the curiosity of the marchioness, who asks for the reading to be suspended: she wants to know more about the new philosophy of light. Reluctantly, the chevalier agrees to sketch a 'Newtonian painting' for her, that is, to introduce her into the exciting world of Newtonian philosophy.2
The marchioness goes through a process of initiation, a 'noviciate', which begins with a historical overview of various systems of the universe and their respective doctrines on the nature of matter and light. The conversation touches upon Lucretius, Dante, and medieval scholastic philosophy up to the moderns, primarily Descartes and Malebranche. The marchioness enjoys this agile and witty promenade through the history of philosophy as if she were at the opera, philosophers and system-makers being the hidden machinists who set up marvellous spectacles for the pleasure of her imagination. It takes the first three dialogues for the marchioness to travel through the imaginary realms of past philosophy. She becomes, at first, a fervent Cartesian. Then, made aware of the difficulties raised by the Cartesian theory of light, she decides to defend a more cautious Malebranchian position. By the end of the third dialogue though, it is clear that this position must also be abandoned. Like any other imaginary system, the Malebranchian fails the test of empirical evidence. Rival theories are tested through simple, enjoyable, home-made experiences, like looking at the colours produced by the sparkle of a decorative fountain. Alternatively, the chevalier provides careful descriptions of professionally conducted experiments, usually those he has replicated himself or, at least, those of which he has witnessed the replication. The chevalier would ask the marchioness to imagine a certain state of affairs and follow step by step the imaginary replication of the experiment up to its final 'demonstration'. The marchioness's vivid imagination is praised often in the dialogues.3