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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1843-1849 > Russian

Sample of Mezzofanti's handwriting in Russian : Click to enlarge picture
Sample of Mezzofanti's handwriting in Russian
To begin with Russian. A traveller of that nation who twice visited him about this time, cited by Mr. Watts, describes him as " a phenomenon as yet unparalleled in the literary world, and one that will scarce be repeated, unless the gift of tongues be given anew, as at the dawn of Christianity."

Cardinal Mezzofanti," he writes, " spoke eight languages fluently in my presence : he expressed himself in Russian very purely and correctly; but, as he is more accustomed to the style of books than that of ordinary discourse, it is necessary to use the language of books in talking with him for the conversation to Row freely. His passion for acquiring languages is so great, that even now, in advanced age, he continues to study fresh dialects. He learned Chinese not long ago; and is constantly visiting the Propaganda for practice in conversation with its pupils of all sorts of races. I asked him to give me a list of all the languages and dialects in which he was able to express himself, and he sent me the name of GOD written in his own hand, in fifty-six languages, of which thirty were European, not counting their subdivision of dialects, seventeen Asiatic, also without reckoning dialects, five African, and four American. In his person, the confusion that arose at the building of Babel is annihilated, and all nations, according to the sublime expression of Scriptures, are again of one tongue. Will posterity ever see anything similar ? Mezzofanti is one of the most wonderful curiosities of Rome.

In the end of the year 1845, Nicholas, the late Emperor of Russia, (who of course is an authority also on the Polish language,) came to Rome, on his return from Naples, where he had been visiting his invalid Empress. The history of his interview with the Pope, Gregory XVI., and of the apostolic courage and candour with which, in two successive conferences, that great pontiff laid before him the cruelty, injustice, and impolicy of his treatment of the Catholic subjects of his empire, is too well known to need repetition here. It was commonly said at the time, and has been repeated in more than one publication, that the Pope's interpreter in this memorable conference was Cardinal Mezzofanti. This is a mistake. The only Cardinal present at the interview was the mild and retiring, but truly noble-minded and apostolic, Cardinal Acton.

A .few days, however, after this interview, M. Boutanieff, the Russian minister at Rome, wrote to request that Cardinal Mezzofanti would wait upon the Emperor ; and a still more direct invitation was conveyed to him, in the name of the Emperor himself, by his first aide-de-camp. The Cardinal of course could not hesitate to comply. Their conversation was held both in Russian and in Polish. The Emperor was filled with wonderland confessed that, in either of these languages it would be difficult to discover any trace of foreign peculiarity in the Cardinal's accent or manner. It is somewhat amusing to add, that the Cardinal is said to have taken some exceptions to the purity, or at least the elegance, of the Emperor's Polish conversational style.

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