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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1774 to 1798 > First masters

It was mainly, however, through the counsel and influence of a benevolent priest of the Oratory, Father John Baptist Respighi, that the career of the young Mezzofanti was decided. This excellent clergyman, to whom many deserving youths of his native city were indebted for assistance and patronage in their entrance into life, observed the rare talents of Mezzofanti, and, by his earnest advice, promptly overruled the hesitation of his father. At his recommendation, the boy was transferred from the school of the Abate Cicotti, to one of the so-called " Scuole Pie," of Bologna ;—schools conducted by a religious congregation, which had been founded in the beginning of the seventeenth century, by Joseph Cazalana ; and which, though originally intended chiefly for the more elementary branches of education, had also been directed with great success, (especially in the larger cities,) to the cultivation of the higher studies.

Among the clergymen who at this period devoted themselves to the service of the Scuole Pie, at Bologna, were several members of the recently suppressed society of the Jesuits, not only of the Roman, but also of the Spanish and Spanish American provinces. The expulsion of the society from Spain had preceded by more than three years the general suppression of the order; and the Spanish members of the brotherhood, when exiled from their native country, had found a cordial welcome in the Papal states. Among these were several who were either foreigners by birth, or had long resided in the foreign missions of the society. To them all the Scuole Pie seemed to open a field of labour almost identical with that of their own institute. Many of them gladly embraced the opportunity ; and it can hardly be doubted that the facility of learning a variety of languages, which this accidental union of instructors from so many different countries afforded, was, after his own natural bias, among the chief circumstances which determined the direction of the youthful studies of Mezzofanti.

One of these ex-Jesuits, Father Emanuel Aponte, a native of Spain, had been for many years a member of the mission of the Philippine Islands. Another, Father Mark Escobar, was a native of Guatemala, and had been employed in several of the Mexican and South American missions of the society. A third, Father Laurence Ignatius Thiulen, had passed through a still more remarkable career. He was a native of Gottenburg, in Sweden, where his father held the office of superintendent of the Swedish East India Company, and had been born (1746,) a Lutheran. Leaving home in early youth with the design of improving himself by foreign travel, he spent some time in Lisbon, and afterwards in Cadiz, in 1768 ; whence, with the intention of proceeding to Italy, he embarked for the island of Corsica, in the same ship in which he had reached Lisbon from his native country. In the meantime, however, this ship had been chartered by the government as one of the fleet in which the Jesuit Fathers, on their sudden and mysterious suppression in Spain, were to be transported to Italy. By this unexpected accident, Thiulen became the fellow passenger of several of the exiled fathers. Trained from early youth to regard with suspicion and fear every member of that dreaded order, he at first avoided all intercourse with his Jesuit fellow passengers. By degrees, however, their unobtrusive, but ready courtesy, disarmed his suspicions. He became interested in their conversation, even when it occasionally turned upon religious topics. Serious inquiry succeeded ; and in the end, before the voyage was concluded, his prejudices had been so far overcome, that he began to entertain the design of becoming a Catholic. After his landing in the Island of Corsica, many obstacles were thrown in his way by the Swedish consul at Bastia, himself a Lutheran; but Thiulen persevered, and was enabled eventually to carry his design into execution at Ferrara, in 1769. In the following year, 1770, he entered the Jesuit society at Bologna. He was here admitted to the simple vow in 1772. But he had hardly completed this important step, when the final suppression of the Order was proclaimed ; and, although both as a foreigner, and as being unprofessed, he had no claim to the slender pittance which was assigned for the support of the members, the peculiar circumstances of his case created an interest in his behalf. He was placed upon the same footing with the pro. fessed Fathers ; and two years later, in 177(5, he was promoted to the holy order of priesthood, and continued to reside in Bologna, engaged in teaching and in the duties of the ministry  Note 1

These good Fathers, with that traditionary instinct which in their order has been the secret of their long admitted success in the education of youth, were not slow to discover the rare talents of their young scholar in the Scuole Pie. In a short time he appears to have become to them more a friend than a pupil. Two, at least, of the members, Fathers Aponte, and Thiulen, lived to witness the distinction of his later life, and with them, as well as with his first and kindest patron, Father Respighi, he ever continued to maintain the most friendly and affectionate relations   Note 2.

It would be interesting to be able to trace the exact history of this period of the studies of Mezzofanti, and to fix the dates and the order of his successive acquisitions in what afterwards became the engrossing pursuit of his life. But, unfortunately, so few details can now be ascertained that it is difficult to distinguish his school life from that of an ordinary student. His chief teachers in the Scuole Pie appear to have been the ex-Jesuit Fathers already named ; of whom Father Thiulen was his instructor in history, geography, arithmetic, and mathematics ;  Note 3 Father Aponte in Greek ; and probably Father Escobar in Latin. As he certainly learned Spanish at an early period, it is not unlikely that he was indebted for it, too, to the instructions of one of these ecclesiastics, as also perhaps for some knowledge of the Mexican or Central American languages.

But although barren in details, all the accounts of his school days concur in describing his uniform success in all his classes, and the extraordinary quickness of his memory. One of his feats of memory is recorded by M. Manavit. A folio volume of the works of St. John Chrysostom being put into his hand, he was desired to read a page of the treatise "De Sacerdotio" in the original Greek. After a single reading, the volume was closed, and he repeated the entire page, without mistaking or displacing a single word ! His manners and dispositions as a boy were exceedingly engaging ; and the friendships which he formed at school continued uninterrupted during life. Among his school companions there is one who deserves to be especially recorded the well-known naturalist, Abate Camillo Ranzani, for many years afterwards Mezzofanti's fellow professor in the university. Ranzani, like his friend, was of very humble origin, and like him owed his withdrawal from obscurity to the enlightened benevolence of the good Oratorian, F. Respighi. Note 4 Young Ranzani was about the same age with Mezzofanti; and as their homes immediately adjoined each other, Note 5 they had been daily companions almost from infancy, and particularly from the time when they began to frequent the Scuole Pie in company. The constant allusions to Ranzani which occur in Mezzofanti's letters, will show how close and affectionate their intimacy continued to be.

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Note 1
He published a number of polemical and moral treatises, which are enumerated in the " Memorie di Religione," a journal published at Modena, vol IV., pp. 456-61, where will also be found an interesting memoir of the author.

Note 2
Another name, Molina, is mentioned, as one of his early masters, in a rude poetical panegyric of the Cardinal, by an improvisatore named Giovanni Masocco :—" Per la illustre e sempre cara Memoria del Card. Giuseppe Mezzofanti,. " [Roma 1849]. But I have not learned any particulars regarding this Molina.

Note 3
This at least was Thiulen's ordinary department. See the Me. morie di Religione, already cited.
Esquisse Historique sur le Cardinal Mezzofanti. Par A. Ma-navit. Paris, 1853, p. 15.

Note 4
See the Memorie di Religione, vol. XV., where an interesting biography of the Abate Ranzani will be found.

Note 5
Manavit, "Esquisse Historique,"p. 9.

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