10 JULY 1858, Page 16


Mezzofanti's life centres in his wonderful power of acquiring languages, and a knack of using his acquisitions for purposes of self-display. Though living as a public character during the half century which began with Bonaparte's invasion of Italy, and ended with the flight of the present Pope and the establishment of Mazzini's Roman Republic, the most prominent incidents of Mezzofanti's career were the loss of his professor- ship at Bologna in 1798, because he refused even by implication to acknowledge the authority of the Cisalpine Republic, and his selection by Bologna in 1831 as one of three delegates to congra- tulate Pope Gregory the Sixteenth, on his election, after the Bo- lognese revolt had been put down. As a preacher Mezzofanti was not remarkable, To authorship he has, strictly speaking, no claims ; for his writings only consist of a panegyric on a certain Father Aponte, and trifles in various languages, mostly written as complimentary effusions to persons who asked for some memo- rial. To philology whether limited to language or extended to ethnology he made no pretensions ; even in his own peculiar field of lingual acquirement he wrote nothing ; and though he seems to have had some system in learning languages—at least in 1830, he told M. Libri, the mathematician, that learning lan- guages is a " thing less difficult than was generally thought— that there is in all languages a limited number of points to which it is necessary to pay particular attention ; and that when one is once master of those points the remainder follows with great fa- cility "—yet upon these "points" he entered into no explanation with M. Libri. Though entreated by him and by other persons at different times to publish the results of his experience he never did so. He had, it is said, an aversion to writing, owing to a weakness of the chest ; but he wrote letters, and writing was one of his modes of study ; even had he been physically incapaci- tated he could have dictated his system. The number of languages Mezzofanti knew, as well as the ex- tent and character of his knowledge, are matters of dispute. Some seven or eight years before his death, he sent the name of God written in fifty-six languages, as an answer to the request of a Russian traveller, for a " list of all the languages and dialects in which he was able to express himself." This would seem con- clusive unless it could be clearly shown that he had subsequently added to the list. Mezzofanti's nephew has drawn up a catalogue which swells the number to a hundred and fourteen. Dr. Russell says, and truly, that neither the list itself nor the data on which it is founded are of a kind to inspire confidence. The Doctor him- self, however, makes out a catalogue, arranged into five classes according to the extent of knowledge Mezzofanti possessed, and the proofs existing of that knowledge, which, with a sixth class for provincial or local dialects, &c., carries the number beyond a hundred. The thirty, however, in which Mezzofanti was ' fre- quently tested," and which he spoke "with rare excellence," are wonderful enough, even if an exception be taken to the "rare excellence "; for Mezzofanti's capacity to attain this faculty as regards style, may be doubted. The following exhibits a some- what loosely classified view of these thirty.

Hebrew. Modem Armenian.

Rabbinical Hebrew. Persian.

Chaldee. Turkish.

Coptic. Romaic.

Greek. Chinese.


CLASSICAL. Ancient Armenian.

Spanish. Dutch.

English. Polish. Albanese.

Swedish. Bohemian or Cie-


The mastery or even proficiency to which he had attained in

• The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti; with an Introductory Memoir of Eminent Linguists Ancient and Modem. By C. W. Russell, D.D., President of at. Mary II College, Maynooth. Published by Longman, and Co. these languas, is a very difficult matter to settle even approxi- nisteiy. It depends in the first place upon the test to be applied, and then on the person applying it. Some hold that really to masteryour own language merely as an instrument of correctly conveying ideas, and without reference to original graces of style,

Many have no other idea of language than as ie no easy thing.

serving to express their wants or to give utterance to their no- tions. The character of the person applying the test is equally important. Unless that is thoroughly comprehended the report is worth little. Persons may be well educated, accustomed to society, and quite veracious as believing what they say, yet ut- terly incapable of forming a critical judgment. Intelligibility is their one test of language. If a foreigner speaks fluently and so as to be readily understood without marked pronunciation, or glaring solecism, they set him down as a master of their tongue. Individuals with a well developed organ of admiration are predis- posed to praise a celebrity. Philologists and critics may possibly have a leaning the other way ; but they have this advantage over indiscriminate admirers,—they advance specific facts, or give precise reasons for their opinions. Dr. Russell with much judg- ment and great impartiality inserts chronologically in his memoir the different opinions as to Mezzofanti's proficiency that have been published by different authors, or which he himself has procured from individuals. Of this long array of reports or descriptions, we think that furnished by Bunsen for the pur- pose of this memoir, is altogether the best, for largeness, close- ness, critical acumen, and upon the whole fairness. That of an American clergymen Mr. Kip, is perhaps more searching and equally fair ; but it refers to English only. Here is Bunsen's estimate.

" I saw him first as Abate and Librarian at Bologna, in 1828, when tra- velling through Italy with the Crown Prince (now King) of Prussia. When he came to Rome as head librarian to the Vatican, I have frequently had the pleasure of seeing him in my house and in the Vatican. He was always amiable, humane, courteous, and spoke with equal fluency the dif-

ferent languages of Europe: * •

" On the other side, I must confess that I was always struck by the ob- servation of an Italian who answered to the question, None miracoloso di vedere un uomo parlor° quaranta due lingue? ' replied, ' Si, senza dub- bio ; ma pill miracolose ancora a di sentire she gusto uomo in quaranta due lingue non dice niente.' A giant as a linguist, Mezzofanti certainly was a child as a philologer and philological critic.

" He delighted in etymologies, and sometimes he mentioned new and striking ones, particularly as to the Romanic languages and their dialects. But he could not draw any philosophical or historical consequences from that circumstance beyond the first self-evident elements. He had no idea of philosophical grammar. I have once seen his attempt at deciphering a Greek inscription, and never was there such a failure. Nor has he left or published anything worth notice.

"I explain this by his ignorance of all realities. He remembered words and their sounds and sig,nifications almost instinctively ; but he lived upon reminiscences ' • he never had an original thought. I understood from one of his learned colleagues, (a Roman prelate,) that it was the same with his theology; there was no acuteness in his divinity, although he knew well St. Thomas and other scholastics.

" As to Biblical criticism, he had no idea of it. His knowledge of Greek criticism too was very shallow. " In short, his linguistic talent was that of seizing sounds and accents, and the whole (so to say) idiom of a language, and reproducing them by is wonderful but equally special memory. " I do not think he had ever his equal in this respect. " But the cultivation of this power had absorbed all the rest. " Let it, however, never be forgotten that he was, according to all I have heard from him, a charitable kind Christian, devout but not intolerant, and that his habitual meekness was not a cloak, but a real Christian habit and virtue. Honour be to his memory !"

These are the main features of Mr. Kip's sketch.

" He is a small lively-looking man,' says Mr. Kip, apparently over seventy. He speaks English with a slight foreign accent, yet remarkably correct [sic]. Indeed, I never before met with a foreigner who could talk for ton minutes without using some word with a shade of meaning not exactly right; yet, in the long conversation I had with the Cardinal I detected nothing like this. He did not use a single expression or word in any way which was not strictly and idiomatically correct. He converses, too, with- out the slighest hesitation, never being at the least loss for the proper Arne.

" In talking about him some time before to an ecclesiastic, I quoted Lady Blessington's remark, That she did not believe he had made much progress in the literature of these forty-two languages, but was rather like a man who spent his time in manufacturing keys to palaces which he had not time to enter' ; and I inquired whether this was true ? Try him,' said he, laughing ; and, having now the opportunity, I endeavoured to do so. I led him, therefore, to talk of Lord Byron and his works, and then of English literature generally. He gave me, in the course of his converse- tion,quite a discussion on the subject which was the golden period of the English language, and of course fixed on the days of Addison. He drew a comparison between the characteristics of the French, Italian, and Spanish languages ,• spoke of Lockhart's translation from the Spanish, and incident- ally referred to various other English writers. He then went on to speak of American literature, and paid high compliments to the pure style of some of our best writers. He expressed an opinion that with many it had been evidently formed by a careful study of the old authors—those ' wells of English undefiled '—and that within the last fifty years we had imported fewer foreign words than had been done in England. * *

" And yet,' Mr. Kip concludes, all this conversation by no means satis- fied me of the depth of the Cardinal's literary acquirements. There was nothing said which gave evidence of more than a superficial acquaintance with English literature ; the kind of knowledge which passes current in society, and which is necessarily picked up by one who meets so often with cultivated people of each country. His acquirements in words are certainly wonderful ; but I could not help asking myself their use. I have never yet heard of their being any practical benefit to the world during the long life of their possessor. He has never displayed anything philosophical in his character of mind ; none of that power of combination which enables Schle- gel to excel in all questions of philology, and gives him a talent for discri- minating and a power of handling the resources of a language which have never been surpassed.'

Dr. Russell demurs to these conclusions and somewhat similar opinions by other critics. A specimen of Mezzofanti's English is given in the appendix which rather confirms Bunsen's idea of his " linguistic talent " as connected with sounds and a spe- cial memory. Here are the lines alluded to.

"English verses given to an Irish student on his leaving the Propaganda.

"May Christ be on your lips and heart !

Show forth by facts [deeds] what words impart, That by sound words and good behaviour You may lead others to the Saviour."

As a mere specimen of versifying by a foreigner this is passable enough ; but there are living foreigners—Italians, Frenchmen, Germans, Poles who would produce more forcible and idiomatic English than this. Neither can the English be pronounced very first-rate. The use of " facts " instead of deeds if not grammati- cally improper, is a solecism according to usage, a fact not so much meaning an act, as that the act has really taken place—the fact of the act. The necessity of rhyme may be pleaded for "good behaviour," but "sound words " has scarcely any mean- ing. It is a phrase derived from memory, and misapplied ; and rather furnishes support to those detractors of Mezzofanti who called him a parrot. It is a curious example how little avail is authority in language. Everything in the lines could be sup- ported by authority, yet after all they are scarcely English. However, if he knew, as evidence seems to prove that he did know thirty languages to the extent implied by these verses, it was a very wonderful acquisition, though we may demur to the "rare excellence" he possessed in them. Of the tongues spoken in Dr. Russell's opinion more or less perfectly, the evidence is not so conclusive. For example, Mr. Harford in 1817 met Mezzo- fanti and heard him speak Welsh, and give " proofs of familiar acquaintance" with the language. Two other authorities also speak as to his knowledge of Welsh ; but then they themselves seem to have been ignorant of that tongue. On the other hand, Mr. Thomas Ellis of the British Museum, himself a Welshman, says, that Mezzofanti " was unable [in his later years] to keep up or even understand a conversation in the language of the Cymry. The testimony is ample as to the great linguist's modesty and amiability : there is some as to a small vanity ; our impression is that he was not insensible to self-display, and possibly "had the art to make the most of little." With his extraordinary power of articulation, his great reputation, and the habit he had of instantly passing from one language to another, he could easily enough impress strangers with the notion that he had a greater knowledge of a little known tongue than he really possessed, un- less he was engaged in a tete-II-tete conversation with a keen ob- server. Mr. Kip gives an idea how chary strangers might be of anything like probing him when during their interview a reference was made to the Indian languages. Mezzofanti asked whether he "understood Algonquin," but, says Mr. Kip, "I instantly disowned any knowledge of the literature of that respectable tribe of savages, for I was afraid the next thing would be a proposal that we should continue the conversation in their mellifluous tongue.' How easily Mezzofanti might impress an uncritical stranger, or even a bashful native with the notion of a greater knowledge than he had is shown by an anecdote in which Dr. Russell bore a part.

" A few weeks after the Propaganda academy, I met his Eminence at the levee of the newly-created Cardinal Cadolini, ex-Secretary of the Sacred Congregation. Recognizing me at once as the Maynooth Professor,' he addressed me laughingly in Irish—' How are you ? ' It has repeatedly been stated that he knew Irish, and that language is actually enumerated in more than one published list of the languages which he spoke. Had it not been for his own candour on the occasion in question, I myself should have carried away the same impression from our interview. But on my declaring my inability to enter into an Irish conversation, he at once confessed that, had I been able to go farther, I should have found himself at fault ; as, although he knew so much as enabled him to initiate a con- versation and to make his way through a book, he had not formally studied the Irish language."

Like other points connected with Mezzofanti, people differ as to his intellectual and critical faculties. We have seen Bunsen's opinion on the question and the general critical voice inclines to the same conclusion, though with some exceptions. Whatever his native powers might have been we doubt whether he had time to spare for such a perusal of standard works in the languages he is acknowledged to have well understood as is necessary to their thorough judgment. At Rome he had more numerous public du- ties to discharge than at Bologna ; but he thus describes his avo- cations at the latter city as a reason for asking a friend to do something.

" I would do so willingly myself, but I cannot find a single free moment. The library, my professorship, my private lectures, the examination of books, the visits of strangers, the attendance on sick or dying foreigners, do not leave me time to breathe. In all this I possess one singular advantage —the excellent health with which I am blessed. But on the other hand, I am losing, or indeed I have already.lost, my habit of application ; and now, if I am called from time to time to do anything, I find myself reduced to the necessity of improvising."

His system of learning languages is likewise a subject of dis pute. Some conceive it to have been a mere instinctive knack aided by a wonderful memory. He himself as we have seen, laid claim to some sort of system ; but what it was he never ex- plained. His incessant practice no doubt gave him dexterity, as he admitted to M. Libri, saying that when " one has learned ten or a dozen languages essentially different from one another, one may, with a little study and attention learn any number of them." It seems to be quite certain that labour and painstaking were elements of his success, his industry being aided by his sur- prising memory and his instinctive genius. A few instances of his early proceedings will indicate the nature of his proceedings.

How Me=ofanti LearneelSwedish.—"ABolognese musician, named Uttini, had settled at Stockholm, where he married a Swedish lady. Uttini, it would seem, died early ; but his brother, Caspar Uttini, a physician of Bo- logna, undertook the education of his son, who was sent to Bologna for the purpose. The boy, at his arrival, was not only entirely ignorant of Italian, but could not speak a word of any language except his native Swedish. In this emergency Mezzofanti, who, although still a student, had already ac- quired the reputation of a linguist, was sent for, to act as interpreter be- tween the boy and his newly found relatives : but it turned out that the language of the boy was, as yet, no less a mystery to Mezzofanti than it had already proved to themselves. This discovery, so embarrassing to the family, served but to stimulate the zeal of Mezzofanti. Having made a few ineffectual attempts to establish an understanding, he asked to see the books which the boy had brought with him from his native country. A abort ex- amination of these books was sufficient for his rapid mind ; he speedily dis- covered the German affinities of the Swedish language, and mastered almost at a glance the leading peculiarities of form, structure, and inflection, by which it is distinguished from the other members of the Teutonic family ; a few short trials with the boy enabled him to acquire the more prominent principles of pronunciation; and in the space of a few days, he was able, not only to act as the boy's interpreter with his family, but to converse with the most perfect freedom and fluency in the language ! "

Turning Disaster to Account." iI was at Bologna,' he himself told M. Manavit, during the time of the war [1796-1800]. I was then young in the sacred ministry ; it was my practice to visit the military hospitals. I constantly met there Hungarians, Slavonians, Germans, and Bohemians, who had been wounded in battle, or inva- lided during the campaign; and it pained me to the heart that from want of the means of communicating with them, I was unable to confess those among them who were Catholics, or to bring back to the Church those who were separated from her communion. In such cases, ac- cordingly, I used to apply myself, with all my energy, to the study of the language of the patients, until I knew enough of them to make myself understood ; I required no more. With these first rudiments I presented myself among the sick wards. Such of the invalids as desired it, I managed to confess ; with others I held occasional conversations ; and thus in a short time I acquired a considerable vocabulary. At length, through the grace of God, assisted by my private studies, and by a retentive memory, I came to know, not merely the generic languages of the nations to which the several invalids belonged, but even the peculiar dialects of their various provinces.' "In this way, being already well acquainted with German, he became master successively of Magyar, Bohemian, or Czechish, Polish, and even of the Gipsy dialect, which he learned from one of that strange race, who was a soldier in a Hungarian regiment quartered at Bologna during this period. It is probable, too, that it was in the same manner he also learned Russian. Itis at least certain that he was able to speak that language fluently at the date of his acquaintance with the celebrated Suwarrow."

Making the most of Strangers.—" In his zeal for the extension of the cir- cle of his knowledge of languages, too, he pushed to the utmost the valuable opportunities derivable from the converse of foreigners. The hotel-keep- ers,' he told M. Manavit, were in the habit of apprising me of the arrival of all strangers at Bologna. I made no difficulty when anything was to be learned, about calling on them, interrogating them, making notes of their communications, and taking instructions from them in the pronunciation of their respective languages. A few learned Jesuits, and several Spaniards, Portuguese, and Mexicans, who resided at Bologna, afforded me valuable aid in-learning both the ancient languages, and those of their own countries. I made it a rule to learn every new grammar, and to apply myself to every strange dictionary that came within my reach. I was constantly filling my head with new words ; and, whenever any new strangers, whether of high or low degree, passed through Bologna, I endeavoured to turn them to ac- count, using the one for the purpose of perfecting my pronunciation, and the other for that of learning the familiar words and turns of expression. I must confess, too, that it cost me but little trouble ; for, in addition to an excellent memory, God had blessed me with an incredible flexibility of the organs of speech."

Joseph Mezzofanti was born at Bologna in 1774. His parents were very poor, and notwithstanding the aptness for learning

which he displayed when little more than an infant at a dame school, his wonderful gift might have been lost to the world, or he might have had to overcome great external obstacles, had it not been for the plan which the Romish church (and indeed al- most every other communion except the established churches of England and Scotland,) systematically adopt, of enlisting studious youths even of the humblest classes in the clerical army. It was through two priests that the child Mezzofanti was enabled to cen- time his school education, and prevented from being placed in some secular pursuit. Once given the opportunity of distinguish- ing himself, his progress was rapid in the extreme. He had not quite completed his twenty-third year when he was appointed Professor of Arabic in the University of Bologna, and was soon after ordained priest before the accustomed age. When he was displaced from his Professorship as already mentioned in 1798, he eked out his small income of about sixteen pounds a year, (from two trifling benefices and a friend's allowance,) by private tui- tion. In January 1803, he was appointed Assistant-Librarian of the Institute of Bologna, and soon after restored to his former position in the University as Professor of Oriental Languages. Henceforth his promotion was gradual if not very rapid till he attained the Cardinalship in 1838; and this was signalized by a lingual tour de force.

"A still more characteristic tribute on his elevation was a polyglot visit of.congratulation from his young friends in the Propaganda. A party of fifty-three, comprising all the languages and nationalities at that time re- presented in the institution, waited upon him to offer their greetings in their various tongues. The new Cardinal was at once amused by the novel exhi- bition, and gratified by the compliment thus delicately implied. True, however, to his old character for readiness and dexterity, he was found fully equal to the occasion, and answered each in his own language with great sporit and precision."

He died in 1849 of natural decay, during the ascendancy of the Roman republic.

Dr. Russell's Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti is founded on an ar- ticle-published in 1855 in the Edinburgh _Review, and was un- dertaken in consequence of solicitations from various quarters. In the execution of his task the author has had recourse to every quarter likely to throw any light on the career or character of the great linguist. Besides availing himself of published notices, he has addressed himself, and apparently through Church influences, to early associates of Mezzofanti now scattered over the world, as. well as applied directly to scholars like Bunsen. The result is as much knowledge of the subjeot as is now likely to be attainable, The materials too are judiciously handled ; the distinctive power of Mezzofanti being very prominently presented, yet not to the neglect of subordinate traits or biographical particulars. A lean- ing towards the Cardinal is traceable, but if the judgment seems a leetle biassed, the facts on which it is founded are presented with perfect impartiality. The style may be slightly prolix, as is generally the case with divines of the Romish church, especially if trained in Italy; but it has a sort of graciousness and at- traction. An elaborate introduction is prefixed to the Life con- taining brief notices of the most eminent linguists, to serve as a comparative test of Mezzofanti's attainments.