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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1831 to 1833 > Study of Chinese

Sample of Mezzofanti's handwriting in Chinese : Click to enlarge picture
Sample of Mezzofanti's handwriting in Chinese
At the time of Mezzofanti's visit, March 23, 1832, the superior of the college of the Congregation was Father John Borgia, the last direct representative of the noble family of that name. He received the great linguist with the utmost cordiality; and during the entire time of his sojourn, the students and superiors vied with each other in their attentions to their distinguished guest. From the moment of his arrival he had thrown himself with all his characteristic energy into the study of the language ; and notwithstanding its proverbial difficulty, and its even to him entirely novel character, he succeeded in an incredibly short time in mastering all the essential principles of its rudimental structure. Most unfortunately, however, before he had time to pursue his advantage, his strength gave way under this excessive application, and he was seized with a violent fever,* by which his life was for some time seriously endangered. The fever was attended by delirium, the effect of which, according to several writers who relate the circumstance, was to confuse his recollection of the several languages which he had acquired, and to convert his speech into a laughable jumble of them all. This, how-ever, although an amusing traveler's story, is but a traveler's story after all. Mezzofanti himself told Cardinal Wiseman that the effect of his illness was not merely to confuse, but to suspend his memory altogether. He completely forgot all his languages. His mind appeared to return to its first uneducated condition of thought, and whatever he chanced to express in the course of his delirium was, spoken in simple Italian, as though he had never passed outside of its limits.

He was so debilitated by this illness, that immediately upon his convalescence it became necessary for him to return to Rome without attempting to resume his Chinese studies. Most opportunely, however, for his wishes, the authorities of the Propaganda some years afterwards transferred to Rome, as we shall see, a certain number of these Chinese students, with the view of enabling them to complete with greater advantage in the great missionary college the studies which they had commenced in what might almost be called a domestic institution. With their friendly ; assistance Mezzofanti completed what had been so inauspiciously interrupted by his illness.*

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