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      · Vatican Libary
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      * Greek Epigram
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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1834 to 1836 > Greek Epigram

As M. Fleck is in many things, an echo of the supercilious criticisms of those who, while they admitted in general terms the marvellous character of Mezzofanti's talent, contrived, nevertheless, to depreciate it in detail, it may be well to afford the reader an opportunity of judging it for himself.

Of middle size and somewhat stooping in his gait," writes M. Fleck, " Mezzofanti's appearance is nevertheless agreeable and benevolent. Since he has been Prefect of the Vatican in Mai's stead, I have had occasion to see him daily. His talent is that of a linguist, not that of a philologist. One forenoon in the Vatican, he spoke modern Greek to a young man who came in, Hebrew with a rabbi or ' scrittore' of (he library, Russian with a magnate who passed through to the manuscript rooms, Latin and German with me, Danish with a young Danish archaeologist who was present, English with the English,—Italian with many. German he speaks well, but almost too softly, like a Hamburgher; Latin he does not speak particularly well, and his English is just as middling. There is something about him that reminds me of a parrot—he does not seem to abound in ideas; but his talent is the more deserving of admiration, that the Italians have great difficulties to cope with in learning a foreign language. He will always remain a wonderful phenomenon, if not a miracle in the dogmatic sense. It is said to have been observed, that he often repeats the same ideas in conversation. He was entirely dependant on Mai in his position in the Vatican, especially at the commencement of his tenure of office, and manifested some weakness in this respect. He told me he had learned Russian at Bologna from a Pole, and so had been in danger of introducing Polonicisms into his Russian. In the French wars, his visits to the hospitals gave him an excellent opportunity of seeing and conversing with men of different nations, and the inarch of the Austrians made him acquainted with the dialect of the gipsies. Thrice, he told me, he has been dangerously ill, and in a kind of ' confusion of languages.' He is altogether a man of a sensitive nervous system, and much more decidedly and more pusillanimously attached to Catholicism than Mai. He has never travelled, except to Rome and Naples; and to Naples he went to study Chinese at the institute for the education of natives of China as missionaries, and there he fell dangerously ill. He seeks the society of foreigners very eagerly, in order to converse with every one in his own language. As a special favourite of the Pope, he enlivens his holiness's after-dinner hours (Verdaungs-stunden), and is often invited to him in the afternoon : by his manifold acquirements and the winning urbanity of his manners, he seems as if born for the society of a court. He has made himself popular among the learned foreigners who visit the Vatican, by permitting them to continue their labours in the library during certain days after the beginning of the holidays, on which the library had ordinarily been closed with a view to the adjustment and supervision of the MSS. His predilection for acquiring foreign idioms is so strong that he observes and imitates the provincial dialects and accents. He has carried this so far, that, for example, he can distinguish the Hamburgh and Hanoverian German very well. Even of Wendish he is not ignorant. This is, indeed, a gift of no very high order; but it is a gift nevertheless, and, when exercised in its more dazzling points of practice, sets one in amazement. Mezzofanti understands this well. The Italians admire this, distinguished and unassuming man, as the eighth wonder of the world, and believe his reputation to be not only European, but Asiatic and African also. He is said to speak some thirty languages and dialects; but of course not all with equal readiness. The Persian missionary, Sebastiani, who, in Napoleon's time, played an important political part in Persia, was eagerly sought after by Mezzofanti when in Rome, that he might learn modern Persian from him ; Sabastiani, however, showed himself disinclined to his society, which pained Mezzofanti much. Mezzofanti has been called the modern Mithridates, and thought very highly of altogether. In an intellectual point of view, many learned men, even Italians, are certainly above him : his reading appears at times shallow, owing to its having been so scattered, and it has occurred that he has often repeated the same thing to strangers; but his great and peculiar linguistic talent, which seems as it were to spring from some innate sense, cannot be denied; his goodnature and politeness to the students who frequent the Vatican are very great; and I am therefore unable to comprehend how Blume (Iter Italicum,1.158,) can speak of the opposite experience of learned travellers during his residence at Bologna.

Mezzofanti is fond of perpetuating his memory in the albums of his friends. He wrote in mine :—

Ercetai atnqrwpois laqraiws escaton hmar,
Oi de peri zwhs polla monousi mathn.
Criste, su men pantwn arch, su de kai telos essi ;
En te soi eirhnh esti kai hsucih.

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