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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1774 to 1798 > Study of language

Meanwhile, however, he continued without interruption, what, even thus early in his career, was his chosen study of languages. Under the direction of Father Aponte, now rather his friend and associate than instructor in the study, he pursued his Greek reading; and as this had been from the first one of his favourite languages, there were few Greek authors within his reach that he did not eagerly read. Fortunately, too, Aponte was himself an enthusiast in the study of Greek, and possessed a solid and critical knowledge of the language, of which he had written an excellent and practical grammar for the schools of the university, frequently repub-lished since his time; Note 1 and it was probably to the habit of close and critical examination which he acquired under Aponte's instruction, that Mezzofanti owed the exact knowledge of the niceties of the language, and the power of discriminating between all the varieties of Greek style, for which, as we shall see later, he was eminently distinguished.

One of his fellow pupils in Greek under Aponte was the celebrated Clotilda Tambroni, whom I have already mentioned in the list of lady-linguists, and whose name is the last in the catalogue of lady-professors at Bologna. A community of tastes as well as of studies formed a close bond of intimacy between her and Mezzofanti, and led to an affectionate and lasting friendship in after life. To Aponte she was as a daughter. Note 2

His master in Hebrew was the Dominican Father Ceruti, a learned Orientalist and professor of that language in the university. About the same time also, he must have become acquainted with Arabic, a language for the study of which Bologna had early acquired a reputation. And, what is a still more unequivocal exhibition of his early enthusiasm, although Coptic formed no part of the circle of university studies, Gorres states that he learned this language also under the Canon John Lewis Mingarelli Note 3. If this account be true, as Mingarelli died in March 1793, Mezzofanti must have acquired Coptic before he had completed his nineteenth year.

Nor did he meanwhile neglect the modern languages. About the year 1792, a French ecclesiastic a native of Blois, one of those whom the successive decrees of the Constituent Assembly had driven into exile, came to reside in Bologna. From him Mezzofanti speedily acquired French Note 4. He received his first lessons in German from F. Thiulen, Note 5 who had been one of his masters in the Scuole Pie ; and who, although a Swede by birth, was acquainted with the cognate language of Germany. From him, too, most probably, Mezzofanti would also have, learned his native Swedish , but, on the occupation of northern Italy by the French, F. Thiulen, who had made himself obnoxious to the revolutionary party in Bologna, by his writings in favour of the Papal authority, had been arrested and sent into exile. Note 6 

Perhaps Thiulen's absence from Bologna was the occasion of calling into exercise that marvelous quickness in mastering the structure of a new language, which often, during Mezzofanti's later career, excited the amazement even of his most familiar friends. 

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Note 1
Elementi della Lingua Greca, pel uso delle Scuole di Bologna. Bologna 1807.

Note 2
See Kephalides "Reise durch Italien und Sicilien" Vol. I. p. 29.

Note 3
See two interesting articles in the " Historisch-Politische Blatter," vol. X. p, 200, and folio. The writer was the younger Gorres, (Guido,) son of the well-known professor of that name. Most of his information as to the early life of Mezzofanti was derived from the Cardinal himself, with whom, during a long sojourn in Rome, in 1841-2, he formed a very close and intimate friendship, and in company with whom he studied the Basque language, I have spoken of Mingarelli in a former page.

Note 4
J Manavit, p. 17.

Note 5
Santagata, p. 171.

Note 6
Memorie di Religione, vol. IV., p. 450.

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