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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1774 to 1798 > Birth and family history

A MEMOIR of Cardinal Mezzofanti can be little more than a philological essay. Quiet and uneventful as was his career, its history possesses few of the ordinary attractions of Biography. The main interest of such a narrative must consist in the light which it may tend to throw on the curious problem; —what degree of perfection the human mind, concentrating its powers upon one department of knowledge, is capable of attaining therein; and the highest hope of the author is to escape the reproach which Warburton directed against Boileau's biographer, Desmaiseaux, of having " written a book without a life. "

Joseph Caspar Mezzofanti Note 1, was born at Bologna on the 17th of September, 1774 Note 2. His father, Francis Mezzofanti, a native of the same city, was of very humble extraction, and by trade a carpenter. Though almost entirely uneducated, Francis Mezzofanti is described by the few who remember him, as a man of much shrewdness and intelligence, a skilful mechanic, and universally respected for his integrity, piety, and honourable principles. For Mezzofanti's mother, Gesualda Dall' Olmo, a higher lineage has been claimed ;—the name of Dall' Olmo being extremely ancient and not undistinguished in the annals of Bologna ; but the fortunes of the immediate branch of that family from which Gesualda Dall' Olmo sprung, were no less humble than those of her husband. Her education, however, was somewhat superior; and with much simplicity and sweetness of disposition, she united excellent talents, great prudence and good sense, and a profoundly religious mind.

Of this marriage were born several children ; but they all died at an early age, except a daughter named Teresa, and Joseph Caspar, the subject of the present biography. Teresa was the senior by ten years, and, while her brother was yet a boy, married a young man named Joseph Lewis Minarelli Note 3, by trade a hair dresser, to whom she bore a very numerous family, several of whom still survive Note 4. To the kind courtesy of one of these, the Cavaliero Pietro Minarelli, I am indebted for a few particulars of the family history, and of the early years of his venerated uncle Note 5

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Note 1
This name was afterwards the subject of a punning epigram, Mezzofanti is a compound word, (like the names Mezzabarba, Mezzavacca, Mezzomorto, &c., ) and means half-child, [Mezzo-Fante. ] Hence the following distich: —
    Dimidium Fantis jam nunc supereminct omnes!
    Quid, credis, fieret, si integer ipse foret ?

In the Via Malcontenti. The house still exists, but has been entirely remodelled. An inscription for the apartment in which Mezzofanti was born was composed by D. Vincenzo Mignani: — Heic Mezzofantus natus, notissimus Orbi, Unus qui linguas calluit omnigenas. Some years later Francis Mezzofanti removed to a house on the opposite side of the same street, in which he thenceforward continued to reside. This house also is still in existence, but has been modernized. In the early part of the year 1800, Mezzofanti established himself, together with the family of his sister, Signora Minarelli, in a separate house, situated however in the same street: but, from the time of his appointment as Librarian, in 1815, till his final removal to Rome, he occupied the Librarian's apartments in the Palazzo Dell' Università. 

Note 2
There has been some diversity of statement as to the year. The Enciclopedia Popolare (Turin 1851, supp. p. 299,) hesitates between 1774 and 1771. But there can be no doubt that it was the former. He merely learned to read and write. Antonio Dall' Olmo was a professor in the University so far back as 1360. See Tiraboschi, "Letteratura Italiana," V. p. 56.

Note 3
Minarelli has been a distinguished name in Bolognese letters. The two brothers, Ferdinand and John Lewis, were among the most diligent patristical students of the last century. To the latter (of whom I shall have to speak hereafter,) we are indebted for a learned edition of the lost Peri Triadi of the celebrated Didymus, the blind teacher of Alexandria; the former also is spoken of with high praise by Tiraboschi, VII., 1073. This family, however, is different from that of Minarelli, with which Mezzofanti was connected.

Note 4
No fewer than eleven sons and four daughters. Of the sons only two are now living—the Cavaliere Pietro Minarelli, who is a physician and member of the Medical Faculty of Bologna, and the Cavaliere Gaetano, an advocate and notary. A third son, Giuseppe, embraced the ecclesiastical profession in which he rose to considerable distinction. He was a linguist of some reputation, being acquainted with no fewer than eight languages, (see the Cantica di G. Morocco, p. 12, note,) an accomplishment which he owed mainly to the instruction of his uncle. Some time after the departure of the latter for Rome, Giuseppe was named Rector of the University of Bologna, and honorary Domestic Prelate of the Pope Gregory XVI., but he died at a comparatively early age in 1843. A fourth son, Filippo, became an architect, but was disabled by a paralytic attack from prosecuting his studies, and died after a lingering and painful illness, July 23rd, 1839. The other sons died in childhood. The four daughters, Maria, Anna, Gesualda, and Gertrude, still survive. Maria and Gertrude married—the first, Signor Mazzoli, the second, Signor Calori—and are now widows. Anna and Gesualda arc unmarried. The former resided with her uncle, from the time of his elevation to the cardinalate till his death. She is said to be an accomplished painter in water-colours. Her sister, Gesualda, is an excellent linguist.

Note 5
I take the earliest opportunity to express my most grateful acknowledgment of the exceeding courtesy, not only of the Cavaliere Minarelli and other members of Cardinal Mezzofanti's family, but of many other gentlemen of Bologna, Parma, Modena, Florence, Rome, and Naples. I must mention with especial gratitude the Abate Mazza, Vice-Rector of the Pontifical Seminary, at Bologna; Cavaliere Angelo Pezzana, Librarian of the Ducal Library, at Parma ; Cavaliere Cavedoni, Librarian of Modena ; Professor Guasti at Florence ; Padre Bresciani, the distinguished author of the " Ebreo di Verona," at Rome; the Rector and Vice-Rector of the Irish College, and the Rector and Vice-Rector of the English College in the same city ; and Padre Vinditti of the Jesuit College at Naples. For some personal recollections of Mezzofanti and his early friends, and for other interesting information obtained from Bologna, I am indebted to Dr. Santagata, to Mgr. Trombetti, and to the kind offices of the learned Archbishop of Tarsus, Mgr. De Luca, Apostolic Nuncio at Munich.

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