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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1841 to 1843 > Propaganda

I was fortunate enough to arrive on Rome in the vigil of the great annual "Academy" of the Propaganda, which, from immemorial time has been held during the octave of the Epiphany, the special festival of that institution. It is hardly necessary, in speaking of an exercise now so celebrated, to explain that this Academy consists of a series of brief addresses and recitations, generally speaking in a metrical form, delivered by the students in all the various languages which happen at the time to be represented in the college. The subjects of these compositions are commonly drawn from the festival itself, or from some kindred theme; and the rapidity with which they succeed each other, and the earnestness and vigour with which most of them are delivered, create an impression which hardly any other conceivable exhibition could produce. To the audience, of course, the greater number of these recitations are an unknown sound ; but the earnest manner of the speakers ; their foreign and unwonted intonations ; the curious variety of feature and expression which they present ; and the unique character of the whole proceeding—gave to the scene an interest entirely independent of the recitations themselves considered as literary compositions.

I never shall forget the impression which I received at my first entrance at the Aula Maxima on the evening of Sunday, January 8th, 1843. At the farther end of the hall, on an elevated platform, the benches of which rose above each other like the seats of a theatre, sat the assembled pupils, arranged with some view to effect, in the order in which they were to take part in the exercise. They seemed of all ages, from the dawn of youth to mature manhood. It would be difficult to find elsewhere collected together so many specimens of the minor varieties of the human race. Gazing upon the eager faces crowded within that little space, one might almost persuade himself that he had the whole world in miniature before him, with all its motley tribes and races—

Che coinprender non puo prosa ne verso :— Da India, dal Catai, Marroeco, e Spagna,

Some of the varieties, and perhaps those which present the most marked physiological contrasts with the rest, it is true, were wanting; but all the more delicate shades of difference were clearly discernable ; the familiar lineaments of the Celtic and Anglo-Saxon race ; all the well-known European types of feature and complexion ; the endless though highly contrasted varieties of Asiatic and North African form—-the classic Indian, the stately Armenian, the calm and impassive Chaldee, the solemn Syrian, the fiery Arab, the crafty Egyptian, the swarthy Abyssinian, the stunted Birman, the stolid Chinese. And yet in all, far as they seemed asunder in sentient and intelligent qualities, might be traced the common interest of the occasion. Each appeared to feel that this—the feast of the illumination of the Gentiles—was indeed his own peculiar festival. All were lighted up by the excitement of the approaching exercise ; and it was impossible, looking upon them, and recalling the object which had brought them all together from their distant homes, not to give glory to God for this, the most glorious work of his church : in which " Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the inhabitants of Mesopotamia, Judea, and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt, and the parts of Lybia about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews also, and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, speak the wonderful works of God ;"—not, as of old, in one tongue, but each in the tongue of his own people.

Below the platform were arrayed the auditory. The front seats, distinguished by their red drapery, were reserved for the Cardinals, of whom several were present',—Franzoni, the Cardinal Prefect, with his pale and passionless face—the very ideal of self-denying spirituality;—the English Cardinal Acton, shrinking, as it seemed, from the notice which his prominent position drew upon him—Castracane,CardinalPenitentiary ,with the look of earnest and settled purpose which he always wore ;—the lively little Cardinal Massimo,* in animated and evidently pleasant conversation, with two of the Professors, the lamented abate Palma and abate Graziosi;—the classic head of Mai, every feature instinct with intellectuality—every look bespeaking the scholar and the priest. But it need scarcely be said, that on this evening, despite his scant proportions and unimposing presence, every other claimant for notice was forgotten in comparison with the true hero of such a scene—the great polyglot Cardinal Mezzofanti. He was seated on the extreme right of the front rank, and, as I entered, was conversing eagerly with a stately looking Greek bishop, Monsig-nor Missir, whose towering stature and singularly noble head contrasted strongly with the diminutive and almost insignificant figure of the great linguist.

Behind the Cardinals sate a number of foreign bishops, prelates, members of religious orders, and other distinguished strangers, many of them evidently orientals. The general assembly at the back included most of the literary foreigners then in Rome, among whom were more than one English clergyman, at that time the object of many an anxious prayer and aspiration, of which we have since been permitted to witness the happy fulfilment in their accession to the fold of the Church.

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