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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1838 to 1841 > Critics

A sample of Mezzofanti's handwriting in French : Click to enlarge picture
A sample of Mezzofanti's handwriting in French
As the object of this biography, however, is not merely to bring together such marvels as these, but to collect all the materials for a just portraiture of the linguist himself, I must place in contrast with these truly wonderful narratives, the judgments of other travellers, in order that the reader may be enabled to modify each by comparison with its pendant, and to form his own estimate from a just combination of both.

It must be confessed, as a set off against the wonders which have been just recounted, that there were others of Mezzofanti's visitors who were unable to see in him any of these excellencies. I think, however, that these depreciatory judgments will be found for the most part to proceed from ignorant and superficial tourists, and from those who are least qualified to form an accurate estimate of the attainments of a linguist, One of the heaviest penalties of eminence is the exposure which it involves to impertinent or malevolent criticism, nor is it wonderful that one who received so great a variety of visitors as did Mezzofanti, should have had his share of this infliction.

Mrs. Paget, a Transylvanian lady, married to an English gentleman, who saw Mezzofanti a little before M. d'Abbadie, is cited by Mr. Watts. Her characteristic is rather recklessness and ill-breeding than positive malevolence. But as her strictures, ill-bred as they are, contain some facts which tend to illustrate the main subject of inquiry, I shall insert them without abridgment.

Mezzofanti entered, in conversation with two young Moors, and, turning to us, asked us to be seated. On me his first appearance produced an unfavourable impresson. His age might be about seventy; he was small in stature, dry, and of a pale unhealthy look. His whole person was in monkey-like restless motion. We conversed together for some time. He speaks Hungarian well enough, and his pronunciation is not bad. I asked him from whom he had learned it; he said from the common soldiers at Milan. He had read the works of Kisfaludi and Csokonai, Pethe's Natural History, and some other Hungarian but it seemed to me that he rather studies the words than the subject of what he reads. Some English being present, he spoke English with them very fluently and well; with me he afterwards spoke French and German, and he even addressed me in V7allachian ; but to my shame I was unable to answer. He asked if I knew Slowakian. In showing us some books, he read out from them in Ancient and Modern Greek, Latin and Hebrew. To a priest who was with us, and who had travelled in Palestine, he spoke in Turkish. I asked him how many languages he knew: 'Not many,' he replied,.'for I only speak forty or fifty.' Amazing incomprehensible faculty ! but not one that I should in the least be tempted to envy; for the empty unreflecting word-knowledge, and the innocently exhibited small vanity with which he was filled, reminded me rather of a monkey or a parrot, a talking machine, or a sort of organ wound up for the performance cf certain tunes, than of a being endowed with reason. He can, in fact, only be looked upon as one of the curiosities of the Vatican.

At parting, I took an opportunity of asking if he would allow me to present an Hungarian book to the Vatican library. My first care at my hotel was to send a copy of M. W.'s book, ' Baliteletekiol' (' On Prejudices') to the binder, and a few days afterwards I took it, handsomely bound in white leather, to Mezzofanti, whom I found in a hurry to go and baptize some Jews and Moors. As soon as he saw the book, without once looking into it, even to ascertain the name of the author, he called out, ' Ah ! igen szep, igen szep, munka. Szepen van beiiotve. Aranyos, szep, szep, igen szep, igen koszb'nom.' (Ah! very fine, very fine, very finely bound. Beautiful, very fine, very fine, thank you very much ;)—and put it away in a bookcase. Unhappy Magyar volumes, never looked at out of their own country, but by some curious student of philology like Mezzofanti, and in their own country read by how few ! 

Now, in the first place, in the midst of this lady's supercilious and depreciatory strictures, it may safely be inferred, that Mezzofanti's Hungarian at least must have been unexceptionable, in order to draw from one so evidently prejudiced, the admission that he " spoke it well enough," and that " his pronunciation was not bad." Lest, however, any doubt should be created by these grudging acknowledgments, I shall quote the testimony of a Hungarian nobleman, Baron G-lucky de Stenitzer, who met the Cardinal in Rome some years later, in 1845. The Baron not-only testifies to the excellence of his Magyar, but affirms "that, in the course of the interview, his Eminence spoke no less than four different dialects of that tongue—the pure Magyar of Debreczeny, that of the environs of Eperies, that of Pesth, and that of Transylvania !"

In like manner, though Madame Paget takes upon her to say, that "the Cardinal studies the words rather than the subject of what he reads," Baron G-lucky found him "profoundly versed in the laws and constitution of Hungary" ; and when, in speaking of the extraordinary power enjoyed by the Primate of Hungary, the Baron chanced to allude to his privilege of coining money, his Eminence promptly reminded him that " this privilege had been withdrawn by the Emperor Ferdinand, and even quoted the year of the edict by which it was annulled !"

As regards the dashing style in which this lady sets aside the Cardinal's Magyar reading, which only embraced " the works of Kisfaludi and Czokonai, Pethe's Natural History, and some other Hungarian books," it may be enough for the reader to know that, without reckoning the " other Hungarian books' the three works which she names thus slightingly, comprise no less than seven volumes of poetry and miscellaneous literature.

For what remains of her strictures upon the character of Mezzofanti—strictures be it observed, which she has the hardihood to offer, although her entire knowledge was derived from two interviews of a few minutes, among a crowd of other visitors—her charge of love of display, "empty word-knowledge," " monkey-like" exhibition, and the other pettinesses of "small vanity," the best commentary that can be offered is an account of the Cardinal published at this very period, by one who knew him intimately during a residence of many months in Rome, who was actually for a time his pupil or fellow student, and who, from his position, was thoroughly conversant, not only with the sentiments of the Cardinal's friends and admirers, but with all the variety of criticisms to which, according to the diversity of tastes and opinions, his character and his gifts were subjected in the general society of the literary circles of Rome—I mean the amiable and learned Guido Gorres. I may add that I myself was Herr Gorres's companion in one of his interviews with the Cardinal.

If any one should imagine," he writes, (in the Histovisch-Politische Blatter,  of which, conjointly with Dr. Phillips, lie was editor,) " that all the honours which he has received have produced the slightest effect upon his character or disposition, he is grievously mistaken. Under all the insignia of the Cardinalate, Mezzofanti is still the same plain, simple, almost bashful, good-natured, conscientious, indefatigable, active priest that he was, •while a poor professor, struggling by the exercise of his talents, in the humblest form, to gain a livelihood for the relatives were dependant on his exertions. Although his head is stored with so many languages, it has never, as so frequently occurs to the learned, shown the least indication of lightness- As Prelect of the House of Catechumens he is merely of course, charged with the supervision of their instruction; but he still discharges the duty in person, with all the exactness of a conscientious schoolmaster. He visits the establishment almost every day, and devotes a considerable part of his income to the support of its inmates
In like manner he still, as Cardinal, maintains with the Propaganda precisely the same relations which he held as a simple prelate. Although he is not bound thereto by any possible obligation, he devotes every day to the students of that institution, in summer an hour, in winter an hour and a half. He practises them and also himself in their several languages, and zealously avails himself of the opportunity thus afforded him, to exhort them to piety and to strengthen them in the spirit of their calling.

It is scarcely necessary to say that these youths regard their disinterested friend and benefactor with the most devoted affection

When I spoke to him, one day, about his relations with the pupils, he said to me, ' It is not as a Cardinal I go there; it is as a student—as a youth—(giovanetto.)'

He is familiar with all the European languages. And by this we understand not merely the old classical tongues and the first class modern ones; that is to say, the Greek and Latin, the Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, German and English; his knowledge embraces also the languages of the second class, viz. the Dutch, the Polish, Bohemian or Czechish, and Servian; the Hungarian, and Turkish; and even those of the third and fourth class the Irish, Welsh, Albanian, Wallachian, Bulgarian, and Illvrian—are equally at his command. On my happening to mention that I had once dabbled a little in Basque, he at once proposed that we should set about it together. Even the Romani of the Alps, and the Lettish, are not unfamiliar to him; nay, he has made himself acquainted with Lappish, the language of the wretched nomadic tribes of Lapland; although he (old me he did not know whether it should be called Lappish or Laplan-dish. He is master of all the languages which are classed under the Indo-German family—the Sanscrit and Persian, the Koordish, the Armenian, and the Georgian ; he is familiar with all the members of the Semitic family, the Hebrew, Arabic, Syriae, Samaritan, Chaldee, Sabaic, and even the Chinese, which he not only reads but speaks. As regards Africa, he knows the Coptic, Ethiopic, Abyssinian, Amharic, and Angolese.

Gorres adds what I have already mentioned, as a characteristic mark of their affectionate gratitude, that forty-three of his Propaganda scholars waited upon him on occasion of his promotion to the Cardinalate, and addressed to him a series of congratulations, each in his native dialect. He fully bears out too, the assurance which has been repeated over and over again by every one who had really enjoyed the intimacy of the Cardinal, that, frequently as he came before the public in circumstances which seemed to savour of display, and freely as he contributed to the amusement of his visitors by exhibiting in conversation with them his extraordinary acquirements, he was entirely free from that vanity to which Madame Paget thinks proper to ascribe it all.

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