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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1834 > Bohemian

Side by side with the Dutch traveller's sketch, may be placed a still more lively account of Mezzofanti another visitor of the Vatican, the poet Frankl, a Bohemian by birth, but chielly known by his German writings. • This sketch, besides the allusion to Mezzofanti's skill in the poet's native language, Bohemian, contains a slight, but not uninteresting specimen of Mezzofanti's German vocabulary, and, moreover, illustrates very curiously the attention which he seems always to have given to the general principles of harmony, and his acquaintance with the metrical capabilities of more than one ancient and modern language. The Signor Luzatto, to whose introductory letter Frankl refers, was a friend of Mezzofanti—a distinguished Italian Jew—himself an accomplished linguist, and well known to orien-tal scholars by his contributions to the Archives Israelites, and by a work on the Babylonian Inscriptions.

Having furnished myself," writes Herr Frankl, " with a letter of introduction from Luzatto of Padua, I went to the Vatican Library, of which Mezzofanti was the head. His arrival was looked for every moment; and I occupied the interval by examining the long, well lighted gallery of antiquities which is outside, and which also leads into the halls that contain the masterpieces of ancient art in marble. I was in the act of reading the inscription upon one of the many marble slabs which are inserted in the wall, when a stranger who, except myself, was the sole occupant of the gallery, said to me; 'Here comes Mon-signor Mezzofanti!'

An undeisized man, somewhat disposed towards corpulency, in a violet cassock falling to the ancle, a.nd a white surplice which reached to the knee, came briskly, almost hurriedly, towards as. He carried his four-cornered violet cap in his hand, and thus I was better able to note his lively, though not striking features, and his grey hair still mingled with black. About his lips played a smile, which I afterwards observed to be their habitual expression. He appeared to be not far from sixty. When he carne sufficiently near, 1 advanced to meet him with a silent bow, and he at once received me with the greeting in German, ' Seyn Sie mir willkommen !' (' You are welcome.')

' I am surprised, Monsignor, ' I replied, ' that you address me in German, although I have not spoken a word as yet.' ' Oh,' said he, ' a great many foreigners of all countries come to visit me, and I have acquired a certain routine—pardon me, I should have said a certain ' knack,' (die Routine—verzeihen sie, ' die gewandtheit' sollte ich sagen,—) of discovering their nationality from their physiognomy, or rather from their features.'

' I am sorry, Monsignor,' I replied, ' that it is my ill fortune to belie this knack of yours. I am a native of Bohemia, although not of Bohemian race, and Bohemian is my mother tongue.'

" To what nationality, then, do you belong ?'asked Mezzofanti in Bohemian, without a moment's hesitation."

He afterwards changed the language to Hebrew. Franld adds, that on a second visit to the reading room of the Vatican, he found the gay animated Monsignor in the ordinary black dress of a priest; and took this opportunity to present him a copy of his " Colombo," in which he had written the inscription, " Dem Sprachen-chamoeleon Mezzofanti.'" (" To Mezzofanti, the Chameleon of language".) "

' Ha,' said Mezzofanti, with a smile, ' I have had numberless compliments paid me; but this is a spick and span new one,' ( funkelnagel-neu.)

Upon this word he laid a special emphasis, as if to call my attention to his well known familiarity with unusual words.

'I see,' he continued, 'you have adopted the Italian form of cantos and stanzas.'

' Yes,' I replied, ' the Germans nowadays, for the most part, do homage to the Italian forms.'

'At last!' said he, with a smile not unmixed with triumph.

' Schlegel, Burger, and Platen,' I said, ' have written sonnets quite as harmonious as Petrarch's, and Tasso's stanza has found its rival among the Germans.'

' Well, at all events,' replied Mezzofanti, ' the Germans have not succeeded in hexameters. Klopstock's are incorrect and inharmonious. What harmony is there in the line:—

' Sing, unsterbliche Seele, des siindigen Menschen Erlosung!' Where is the csesura—speaking to you, I should say,abschni(t— in this line ? Voss, it is true, wrote correctly ; and yet an Italian will hang down his chin whenever Voss's hexameters are read. As for Goethe, what sort of poetry is his ? You know his elegies— for example, the hexameter which ends

'blaustrumpf und violet strumpf !' Surely he must have taken the Germans for a hard-hearted nation !'

I quoted for him the burlesque couplet which was composed in ridicule of Schiller's and Goethe's distichs.

'In Weimar und Jenaiuacht man Hexameter wie den, Und die Pentameter sind noch erbarmlicher.

' He repeated it at once after me, and seemed to wish to impress it on his mind.

' Do you know,' he pursued,' what language I place before all others, next to Greek and Italian, for constructive capability and rythmical harmoniousness ?—The Hungarian. I know some pieces of the later poets of Hungary, the melody of which took me completely by surprise. Mark its future history, and you will see in ita sudden outburst of poetic genius, which will fully  This is not quite correctly cited—The passage is in the sixth of the Elegies, "aus Rom," [vol. I. p. 48. Paris, 1836.]

So hab' ich von Herzen, Rothstrumpf immer gehasst und violet-strumpf dazu. It certainly deserves all the ridicule which Mezzofanti heaps on it, and might well make the Muses, on their racks, Scream like the winding often thousand jacks. The allusion to 'red stocking' and 'violet stocking,' is one of Goethe's habitual sneers at the Catholic prelacy. confirm my prediction. The Hungarians themselves do not seem to be aware what a treasure they have in their language.'

' It would be in the highest degree interesting,' said I, ' if you would draw up a comparative sketch of the metrical capabilities of all the various languages that you speak. Who is there that could speak on the subject with more authority ?'

He received my suggestion with a smile, but made no reply. He seems, indeed, to content himself with the glory of being handed down to posterity as the Croesus of languages, without leaving to them the slightest permanent fruit of his immense treasures of science.

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