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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1834 > Dutch

Sample of Mezzofanti's handwriting in Dutch : Click to enlarge picture
Sample of Mezzofanti's handwriting in Dutch
One of M. Legrelle's companions, M. Leon Wilde, a native of Holland, and now a member of the Jesuit Society at Katwick, bears the same testimony to the facility and elegance with which the Cardinal spoke Dutch. M. Wilde also mentions his having written some verses in that language. But a "Tour to Rome" by a Dutch professor, Dr. Wap, published at Breda, in 1889, contains so full and so interesting a notice of the great linguist, in reference to this department of his accomplishment, that, without referring further to M. Wilde's letter, I shall content myself with translating the most important passages of Dr. Wap's account of his visit. The. author, then a professor in the military college of Breda, is now resident at Utrecht.

Joseph Mezzofanti," he writes,"is at present in his sixty-fifth year. He is of a slight figure, pale complexion, black hair which is beginning to turn gray, a piercing eye, quick utterance, and an air full of good humour, but not very intellectual, so that one would hardly expect to discover faculties so extraordinary under such an exterior. The first time I saw him was in the Vatican library, in the large hall which is furnished with tables, for the accommodation of those who wish to read or to take notes. He was busy distributing books, and at the same time was talking to an English lady accompanied by some English gentlemen. I afterwards spent an hour or two with this family, and learned that Mezzofanti had written in the lady's album four very graceful English lines, regarding America, whence she had come, and Vienna, where she was going to reside. As soon as the librarian noticed any foreigner, he at once began a conversation with him, and carried it on, no matter what might be the stranger's idiom. Prince Michael of Russia was amazed at the ease and volubility with which Mezzofanti spoke the Polish language. He accosted me in English, which has in same measure become indigenous o Rome : but, finding I was from Holland, he at once continued the conversation in the Brussels dialect (as he called it,) and told me how scanty the means were of which he had been able to avail himself in the study of Flemish. These were : a Flemish grammar; two authors, (Bolhuis and Ten Kate,) with whom he was acquainted; and finally, Vondel and Cats, whom he had carefully read. He had never seen any of Bilderdvk's works, and he inquired whether this scholar had not introduced a dialect into the Dutch language. When I had given him the necessary information, and told him that Bilderdyk, besides a hundred other works, had written a book on the characters of the Alphabet, another on the Gender of Substantives, and three volumes on their roots, his delight was extreme, and he expressed a great desire to possess these works. I undertook to send them to him, and I took care to redeem my promise, as soon as I returned home.* After this interview, I did not presume to manifest my earnest desire for any further interviews with him : but Mezzofanti anticipated my wishes, and invited me to come and see him at the Propaganda, as often as I liked. There it is that he spends some hours, every evening, among the students, talking with each in his own tongue. I took advantage of his kind proposal, and had thus an opportunity of getting a nearer, view of this college of the Propaganda.

Nowhere will one find so many resources for amassing treasures of knowledge united together, as in the vast college of the Propaganda.

Here are assembled a hundred and fourteen students from forty-one different countries. At my request, the Rector caused the Pater Noster to be written by sixteen foreign students in their respective languages. Here, in the evening, in the midst of these various nations, I met Mezzofanti, who seemed to belong to each of them. He spoke Chinese with Leang of Canton, as easily as he spoke Dutch with Mr. Steenhof* of Utrecht. I will never forget the instructive hours which I spent there. The natural frankness of Mezzofanti, his free and communicative conversation, his easy tone, his gay disposition, all rendered my farewell visit, which 1 twice repeated, very painful to me.

Amidst so many grave employments, Mezzofanti goes twice each week to the house of the orphans, to teach them the catechism, and to the barracks of the Swiss soldiers to instruct them in the. principles of religion. The library requires his care twice in the week, for several hours in the morning ; in the afternoon he gives lessons to the pupils of the Propaganda, whose studies he superintends ; to his care are confided the public discourses delivered on the Epiphany : almost all foreigners come to visit him; in fine, he pays his visits in his humble equipage, and attends at the Pope's court when pressing affairs requires his presence; and, notwithstanding so many duties and occupations, he still finds time to assist at the divine offices. Who will not feel profound respect and sincere admiration for such a man ?

I will here subjoin some lines which I wrote extempore in Mezzofanti's album, together with his immediate reply.
'Wie ooit de Pinkstergaaf in twijfel durfde trekken. Sta hier beschaamd, verplet vcor Mezzofanti's geest,
Hijj eers in hem den man, die de aard ten tolk kan strekken. Wiens brien in 't taulgeheim van alle volken leest.
Aanvaard, ô Telg varA Zuid, den eerbiedgroet van't Noorden, Klaar denk, terwijl nu oog mijn nietig schrift bcziet,
Almist der Batten spraak Italjes zang akkoorden, Hun tongval of hun ziel leent zich tot vleijen niet.'
My veritable impromptu instantly called forth this beautiful
answer from Mezzofanti:—
Mynhaar ! als uw fraaj schrift kwain heden voor mijne oogen,
Deer Uw gocdaardigheid was ikheel opgetogen,
En zooveel in mijn geest zooveel in't hart opklom,
Bat mijne tong verbleef med vijftig taalen stom. Nu, opdat ik niet schijn U een ondankbaar wezen, Bid ik U in mijn hart alleen te willen lezen.*
Joseph Mezzofanti.

Rome, den 17 April, 1837.'

After writing these lines, he asked me if there were any mistakes in them, and,if so, if I would be good enough to point them out to him. I then noticed the word fraaj in the first line, knowing he would reply that that the letter i at the end of a word should be replaced by a j. The aa in taalen. in the fourth line, ho justified by a reference to the Flemish grammar which he used at the time-As for the d in the preposition med, which occurs in the sa-.iie line, he contended that this was the proper orthography of the word, as it was an abbreviation of inede. I would have been greatly surprised at all this, if 1 had not previously had occasion to admire the delicate ear which this giant of linguistic learning possessed for the subtleties of pronunciation, and the wonderful perspicacity of his orthographical system : especially as he had expressed to me his just disapprobation of the foreign words which some of our countrymen are letting slip into their conversation. He had already given proof to another traveller from Holland that he was perfectly acquainted with the difference between the words nimmer and nooit, so that he hardly ever used one for the other."
* "Let him who dares to doubt the gift of Pentecost, stand ashamed and confounded before the mind of Mezzofanti. In him, let him honour that man who is fit to be the earth's interpreter—whose intellect penetrates the language-secret of all nations.
" Accept, son of the South, the respectful salutation of the North. But think, while your eye beholds my poor address, that if the Batavians' language lacks Italian melody, their tongue and soul are both averse to flattery." Mezzofanti's reply:—
" Sir, when first the day my eyes were cast upon your beautiful address, I was quite enraptured by your great kindness. It so raised up my mind and heart, that, although master of fifty languages, my tongue remained speechless—But lest I should seem an ingrate, I beg you just to read my heart."

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