Celebrating Playing by Heart and the Two Sisters Who Inspired It

Guest Post by Carmela Martino

Today, I’m happy to celebrate the third anniversary of the release of Playing by Heart, a novel I’d never planned to write! I’d originally set out to write a nonfiction biography about mathematician Maria Gaetana Agnesi. She and her younger sister, composer Maria Teresa Agnesi, ended up inspiring the novel, which is set in eighteenth-century Milan.

I have a bachelor’s degree in math and computer science, but I never heard of Maria Gaetana Agnesi 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 of Gaetana for young readers in the hope of inspiring girls interested in math.

Gaetana was the eldest child of Pietro Agnesi, a wealthy man who longed to attain noble status. After discovering how intelligent Gaetana was, Agnesi hired tutors to teach her subjects typically reserved for boys, such as philosophy, astronomy, and math. She eventually wrote the first math textbook that covered everything from basic algebra and geometry to the recently discovered calculus. In 1750, Pope Benedict XIV 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.

I spent several years writing and revising the book 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 the girls’ talents.

When I couldn’t find a publisher for the biography, I decided to try my hand at a novel based on the lives of both 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 original title for the novel 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 novel. 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. Unfortunately, it was written in Italian. I know some Italian, but 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. The novel’s review in Booklist is one of many that comment on my use of details: “Martino’s romantic read features lovable characters and is vibrant in setting and detail.… The book is filled with rich depictions of houses and clothing, allowing readers to clearly picture the historical settings of both Milan and the countryside.”

Writing Playing by Heart was more challenging—and more rewarding—than I expected. I still haven’t given up on writing a nonfiction biography of Maria Gaetana Agnesi, too. I’m working on a new approach and hope to find a publisher when I’m done. 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. (I sometimes played Teresa’s music in the background while working on the novel.) The novel’s Author’s Note provides additional information about the two amazing sisters who inspired Playing by Heart.

2 responses to “Celebrating Playing by Heart and the Two Sisters Who Inspired It

  1. Playing by Heart was a rare fun read based on solid research. Brava Carmela!

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