Scientist, poet, diplomat, philosopher, art collector, and opera lover Francesco Algarotti was born in Venice on 11 December 1712, the son of a rich merchant. He showed an early aptitude for learning, excelling in mathematics and natural sciences. He attended university in Rome and Bologna and won fame for reproducing some of Isaac Newton’s experiments with optics, work for which he was made a fellow of the Royal Society in 1736. In 1737 he published his Newtonianismo per le dame, explaining Newton to the ladies.
During his time in London, he met bisexual courtier John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey, in 1736. In 1739, he stayed for several months at Hervey’s London home at no. 6 St James’s Square, Westminster. The latter wrote a series of passionate love letters to him. He also attracted the attention of Mary Wortley Montagu, author of Turkish Embassy Letters, who became infatuated with the much younger and bisexual Venetian libertine. She proposed that they live together in Italy. She left her husband in 1739, but the experience turned out to be a fiasco.
Algarotti was a prominent member of the cosmopolitan and intellectual European elite, a friend of Voltaire, Lord Chesterfield, and many others. He was employed as a diplomat by Frederick the Great in 1739 who created him Count a year later. Over the years he built an impressive art collection. Having been (amorously) active in Venice, Paris, London, Prussia, Dresden, and Russia, he published in 1745 Il congresso di Citera (The Modern Art of Love: or, The Congress of Cythera) in which he compares English, French, and Italian attitudes toward love.
He returned to Italy in February 1753, residing in Bologna. He published his Essay on Opera in 1755, inspiring Gluck and his librettist to create Orfeo ed Euridice. He died in May 1764 in Pisa where Frederick the Great erected a monument on the Campo Santo to his memory. Étienne Liotard’s portrait of Algarotti wearing a superb blue velvet jacket (1745) is held at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.