Mezzofanti, Joseph Caspar

Mezzofanti, Joseph Caspar a Roman Catholic prelate, celebrated as the greatest linguist the world has ever seen, was born at Bologna September 17, 1774. His father, Francis Mezzofanti, was a carpenter; and he himself, being destined for the same humble career, was placed at one of the free schools of the Oratory in his native city. Father Respighi; a priest of that congregation, observed the remarkable talents of the boy, and saved him for literature. He was removed to a higher school — one of the so-called "Scuole Pie" of Bologna — and eventually to the archiepiscopal seminary, where, after completing the usual course of letters, philosophy, divinity, and canon law in the university, he was admitted to priest's orders in September 1797. Of the details of his progress in the study of languages during these early years no accurate record is preserved; but it is known that, like most eminent linguists, he was gifted, even in childhood, with a very wonderful memory, and that, partly under the various professors in the university, partly by the aid of foreign residents in the city, partly by his own unassisted studies, he had acquired, before the completion of his university career, the Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, and Swedish languages. In 1797, at the early age of twenty-two, he was appointed professor of Arabic in the university; but on the annexation of Bologna, as one of the papal legations, to the newly-established Cisalpine republic, he, refusing to take the oaths of the new constitution, was set aside from the professorship. After the conclusion of the concordat between Pius VII and the first consul, the ancient constitution of the university was restored. In 1803 Mezzofanti was named to the higher professorship of Oriental languages, and in the same year became assistant librarian of the public library of the city. In 1808 the professorship was discontinued, and Mezzofanti was reduced to great distress. He made a scanty living by private tuition; but, nothing daunted, steadily followed in private what had become his engrossing pursuit — the study of languages. A letter of his, dated in 1804, to the celebrated Orientalist, John Bernard de Rossi, whose personal acquaintance he subsequently formed during a short visit to Modena in 1805, enclosed a composition in twelve languages, which he submitted to the judgment of his correspondent; and by 1812 Mezzofanti's reputation as a linguist was thoroughly established. The well-known Pietro Giordani, in several of his letters to his friends, calls him "the divine Mezzofanti," and declares that his skill in living and dead languages entitles him to be regarded as " a man of all ages and all nations." The war of which Northern Italy was so long the theatre afforded Mezzofanti many opportunities of extending his stock of languages. In the hospital of Bologna, to which he was attached as volunteer chaplain, were to be met — among the invalids of the Austrian, Russian, and French armies — Germans, Hungarians, Bohemians, Wallachians, Servians, Russians, Poles, and Croats. Partly in the desire to offer these sufferers the consolations of religion, partly from his love of the study itself. Mezzofanti labored assiduously to turn these and all similar opportunities to account; and several instances are recorded in which, without the assistance of a grammar or dictionary, he contrived to establish a mode of communication with a stranger who was utterly ignorant of every language except his own, and eventually to master that language sufficiently for all the purposes of conversation. He has left an account of his mode of study during these years, which is not a little curious and interesting. "The hotel-keepers," he says, "were in the habit of notifying me of the arrival of all strangers at Bologna; and I never hesitated, when anything was to be learned thereby, to call upon them, to interrogate them, to make notes of their communications, and to take lessons in the pronunciation of their several languages. There were a few learned Jesuits too, and several Spaniards, Portuguese, and Mexicans residing in Bologna, from whom I received valuable assistance, both in their own and in the learned languages. I made it a rule to learn every strange grammar, and to apply myself to every new dictionary that came within my reach. I was constantly filling my head with new words. Whenever a stranger, whether of high or low degree, passed through Bologna, I tried to turn the visit to account, either for the purpose of perfecting my pronunciation, or of learning the familiar words and turns of expression. Nor did all this cost me so much trouble; for, in addition to an excellent memory, God had gifted me with remarkable flexibility of the organs of speech." In the year 1812 Mezzofanti was appointed assistant librarian of the university; in 1814 he was reinstated in his professorship; and in 1815 he became chief librarian. From this period, especially after the restoration of peace, his reputation rapidly extended. Every visitor of Bologna related fresh marvels regarding his prodigious attainments. Tourists from every nation, whether of Europe or of the East, united in representing him as perfect, each one in his own language. Lord Byron, about 1820, pronounced him "a walking polyglot, a monster of languages, and a Briareus of parts of speech." M. Molbech, a Danish traveller of the year 1820, reports the number of his languages at "more than thirty," and testifies to his speaking Danish " with almost entire correctness." French, German, Spanish, Polish, Russian, Greek, and Turkish travellers concur in the same report, not only with regard to their own, but also to many other languages. During all these years — except a short visit to Pisa, Leghorn, Florence, and Rome — he had resided altogether at Bologna, though invited, with many flattering offers, to transfer his residence to Paris, to Vienna, to Florence, and to Rome. At length, having gone to Rome as a member of the deputation sent by the Bolognese to offer their submission to pope Gregory XVI, after the revolution in 1831, he was induced by the pontiff to settle permanently in Rome, and to accept a prebend in the Church of St. Mary Major, which was soon after exchanged for a canonry in St. Peter's, and, on the promotion of the celebrated Angelo Mai, then keeper of the Vatican Library, to the secretaryship of the Propaganda, Mezzofanti was appointed to succeed him in the important charge of the Vatican. He held this office till 1838, in which year, conjointly with Mai, he was elevated to the cardinalate. His residence in a great center of languages, such as Rome, and especially the facilities of intercourse with the various races represented in the College of the Propaganda, gave a new impulse to Mezzofanti's linguistic studies. The reports of his visitors at Rome are still more marvellous than those of the Bolognese period. An eminent German scholar, Herr Gorres, who had much intercourse with him in the year 1841, writes thus: "He is familiar with all the European languages; and by this I mean not only the ancient classical tongues and the modern ones of the first class — such as the Greek and Latin, or the Italian, French, German, 'Spanish, Portuguese, and English — his knowledge extends: also to the languages of the second class, viz., the Dutch, Danish, and Swedish; to the whole Sclavonic family — Russian, Polish, Bohemian, or Czechish; to the Servian, the Hungarian, the Turkish;, and even those of the third and fourth classes — the Irish, the Welsh, the Wallachian, the Albanian, the Bulgarian, and the Illyrian. The Romani of the Alps and the Lettish are not unknown to him; nay, he has made himself acquainted with Lappish. He is master of the languages which fall within the Indo-Germanic family — the Sanscrit and Persian, the Kurdish, the Georgian, the Armenian; he is familiar with all the members of the Shemitic family — the Hebrew, the Arabic, the Syriac, the Samaritan, the Chaldee, the Sabaic — nay, even with the Chinese, which he not only reads, but speaks. Among the Hamitic languages, he knows Coptic, Ethiopic, Abyssinian, Amharic, and Angolese." What is especially notable in this marvellous gift possessed by Mezzofanti is that his knowledge of each among this vast variety of languages was almost as perfect as though his attention had been devoted to such language exclusively. The reports of all the great students of language concur in describing him as speaking even their own tongues always with the precision and, in most cases, with the fluency of a native. His pronunciation, his idiom, his vocabulary, were alike unexceptionable. Even the familiar words of everyday life, and the delicate turns of conversational language, were at his command; and in each language he was master of the leading dialects, and of the provincial peculiarities of idiom, of pronunciation, or of expression. In French, he was equally at home in the pure Parisian of the Falubourg St. Germain or in the Provincial of Toulouse. He could accommodate himself in German to the rude jargon of the Black Forest or to the classic vocabulary of Hanover; and he often amused his English visitors with specimens of the provincialisms of Yorkshire, Lancashire, or Somersetshire. With the literature of those various countries, too, he was well acquainted. He loved to talk with his visitors of the great authors in their respective languages; and his remarks are described as invariably sound and judicious, and exhibiting careful and various reading, often extending to departments with which it would never be supposed that a foreigner could be familiar. ADutch traveller, for instance, Dr. Wap, was surprised to find him acquainted with his own national poets, Vondel and Cato.; a Dane, with the philological works of Rask; a Swede, with the poetry of Ochsentsjerna. To a Sicilian he would repeat whole pages of the poetry of Meli; and an English gentleman was astounded to hear him discuss and criticise Hudibras, of all English writers the least attractive, as well as the least intelligible to a foreigner. He was in the habit, too, of amusing himself by metrical compositions in the various languages which he cultivated, and often wrote for his visitors a couplet or two in their native language, as a little memento of their interview. Dr. Wap, the Dutch traveller just referred to, speaks in high praise of some extempore lines in Dutch by which Mezzofanti replied to a sonnet which Dr. Wap had addressed to him; and the well-known Orientalist, Dr. Tholuck; having asked Mezzofanti for some memorial of his visit, received from him a Persian couplet, after the manner of Hafiz, which he composed (although not without some delay) during .Dr. Tholuck's visit. After his removal to Rome, although he had already passed his fiftieth year, he added largely to his stock of languages. His most notable acquisition during this period was Chinese, which he acquired (partly at the Chinese college in Naples, partly among the Chinese students of the Propaganda) in such perfection as to be able not only to write and converse freely in it, but even to preach to the young Chinese ecclesiastics. During the same period he acquired the Abyssinian, the Californian, some of the North American Indian languages, and even the "impossible" Basque. It was in Rome, and especially in the Propaganda, that he displayed in its greatest perfection his singular power of instantaneously passing in conversation from one language to another, without the slightest mixture or confusion, whether of words or of pronunciation.

Mezzofanti, by virtue of his position as cardinal, was member of many ecclesiastical congregations in Rome, but he never held any office of state. He died on the 15th of March, 1849, and was buried in the Church of St. Onofrio, beside the grave of Torquato Tasso. His personal character was gentle, humble, modest, humane, and he was a sincere and devout man.

It is difficult to determine with accuracy the number of languages known by Mezzofanti, and still more so to ascertain how many of these he spoke, and with what degree of fluency in each. During his lifetime, as we have seen, report varied considerably at different times; nor was he himself believed to have made any very precise statement on the subject. To a Russian traveller, who visited him before the year 1846, and who begged of him a list of all the languages and dialects in which he was able to express himself, he sent a paper in his own hand containing the name of God in fifty-six languages. The author of a memoir which appeared soon after the cardinal's death in a Roman journal, the Civila Catolica (now known to be by father Bresciani, a Roman Jesuit), states that in the year 1846 Mezzofanti himself informed him that he was able to express himself in seventy-eight languages. Marvellous as these statements may appear, they seem fully borne out by inquiries (with a view to the preparation of a biography) which have been made since the death of the cardinal. Reports have been received from a vast number of individuals, natives of different countries, whose collective testimony, founded on their own personal knowledge of Mezzofanti, places beyond all question the fact of his having spoken fluently considerably more than fifty different languages. There are others among the languages ascribed to him, regarding which it is difficult to institute any direct inquiry; but, judging from analogy, and relying on the well-known modesty and truthfulness of Mezzofanti, we need not hesitate to accept his own statement as reported by F. Bresciani; the more so as among his papers now in the possession of his family is a list, drawn up from memoranda contained therein, of no less than a hundred and twenty languages with which he possessed some acquaintance, unaccompanied, however, by any note specifying those among the number which he spoke, or the degree of his knowledge of each. His English biographer, Russell, comes to the following results, which are, in brief (for details see that work):

1. Languages frequently tested, and spoken by the cardinal with rare excellence-thirty.

2. Stated to have been spoken fluently, but hardly sufficiently tested- nine.

3. Spoken rarely and less perfectly — eleven.

4. Spoken imperfectly; a few sentences and conversational form — eight.

5. Studied from books, but not known to have been spoken — fourteen.

6. Dialects spoken, or their peculiarities understood thirty-nine dialects of ten languages, many of which might justly be described as different languages.

This list adds up one hundred and eleven, exceeding by all comparison everything related in history. Jonadab Almanor and Sir William Jones are not claimed to have gone beyond twenty-eight; while Mithridates and Pico of Mirandola have been made famous by twenty-two.

In general learning Mezzofanti's attainments were highly respectable. He was a well-informed theologian and canonist, and an impressive though not eloquent preacher. M. Libri, the historian of mathematical science in Italy, found him well acquainted with algebra, and reports an interesting conversation which he had with him on the Bija Gannita (the algebra of the Hindus), as well as on the general subject of Indian history and antiquities. Other writers describe him as entering freely into the history as well as the literature of their several countries. But as an author he is almost unknown. He occasionally read papers at various literary and scientific societies in Bologna and Rome; but his only known publication is a short memoir of his friend and brother professor, father Emanuel da Ponte, which was printed at Bologna in 1820; and he leaves no monument for posterity beyond the tradition that he was incomparably the greatest linguist the world has ever seen. See G. Stolz, Biographia del Cardinal Giuseppe Mezzofanti, in the Journal de Rome of February 5, 1850; A. Manavit, Esquisse historique sur le Cardinal Mezzofanti (Paris, 1854, 8vo); Russell, Life of the Cardinal Mezzofanti, etc. (Lond. 1857, 8vo); L'Ami de la Religion (1849); Revue Catholique de Louvain, September 1853; Engl. Cyclop. s.v.; Bibliotheca Sacra, 1849, page 407; English Review, January 1855; Princeton Review, 1858, page 645 sq.; Catholic World, March, 1870, page 857.

Topical Outlines Nave's Bible Topics International Standard Bible Encyclopedia Online King James Bible King James Dictionary

Verse reference tagging and popups powered by VerseClick™.