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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1803 to 1806 > Felix Caronni

The work to which I refer is the narrative of an occurrence, which, although not uncommon even down to a later date, it is difficult now-a-days, since Islam has ceased to

wield, as of old, her thirsty lance,
And shake her crimson plumage to the skies,

to realize as an actual incident of the nineteenth century Note 1 the adventures of an amateur antiquarian, who was made captive by Corsairs and carried into Barbary. The hero of this adventure was a Milanese ecclesiastic, Father Felix Caronni. He embarked at Palermo for Naples, in a small merchant vessel laden with oranges, but had scarcely quitted the shore when a pirate-ship hove in sight. The crew, as commonly happened in such cases, took to the boat and escaped, leaving Father Caronni and eighteen other passengers to the mercy of the Corsairs, who speedily overpowered the defenceless little vessel. Caronni, as a subject of the Italian Republic and a French citizen, Note 2 would have been secured against capture ; but his passport was in the hands of the captain who had escaped ; and thus, notwithstanding his protestations, he was seized along with the rest, and, under circumstances of great cruelty and indignity, they were all carried into Tunis. Here, however, at the reclamation of the French, supported by the Austrian Consul, Father Caronni was saved from the fate which awaited the rest of the captives—of being sold into slavery,—and at the end of three months, (part of which he devoted to the exploration of the antiquities of Tunis and the surrounding district,) he was set at liberty and permitted to return to Italy.

Being at a loss, while preparing the narrative of his captivity for publication, for a translation of the papers which he received at Tunis when he was set at liberty, he had recourse to the assistance of the Abate Mezzofanti, as he explains in the following passage.

"No sooner," says he," had I obtained the Tiscara Note 3 [passport,] than I made an exact copy of it (with the exception of the Bey's seal,) in the precise dimensions of the original. It was not so easy, however, to obtain a translation of this document in Italy, both because it had been hastily written with a reed the instrument which the Moors employ for that purpose and because there were introduced into it certain ciphers which are peculiar to the Arabs of Barbary. These difficulties, however, were happily overcome, thanks to the exceeding courtesy, as well as the distinguished learning of the Abate Mezzofanti, Professor of Oriental Languages in the Institute of Bologna, who is commonly reputed to be master of more than twenty-four languages, the greater number of which he speaks with fluency and purity. He has favoured me (in four long letters which contain as much information as might supply a whole course of lectures) with a literal and critically exact version of it, accompanied by copious explanations, as also by a free translation in the following terms :

" ' THERE IS BUT ONE GOD, AND MAHOMET IS HIS PROPHET.' " ' We have liberated Father Felix Caronni. He is hereby permitted to embark from Goletta for the country of the Chris¬tians, at the intervention of the French Consul, through the medium of his Dragoman, in consideration of the payment of ninety-nine sequins mahbub, and by the privilege of the mighty and generous Hamudah Note 4 Basha Bey, Ben-Dani, whom may God prosper!
" Second Giomada, in the year 1219.'

" Giomada Note 5 is the name of the sixth month of the Arabs, and the year indicated is the year of their Hegira. Note 6 And, as the Oriental writing runs in the reverse order to ours, (that is, from right to left,) it is necessary, in order that the words of the translation may correspond with those of the original, to take the precaution of reading it backwards, or, what will answer the same purpose, in a mirror. What will strike the reader, however, as most strange, (as it did myself when first the Tiscara was translated for me) is its particularizing the ' payment of ninety-nine gold mahbubs,' which, at the rate of nine lire to each, would make eight hundred and ninety-one Milanese lire : whereas this is utterly false as far as I am personally concerned, and the French commissary did not give me the least intimation of any payment whatever. The Abate Mezzofanti suggests with much probability, that it may be a part of the stylus curia? of these greedy barbarians to boast in their piratical diplomacy that no Christian, and still more no ecclesiastic, has ever been made captive by them without being, even though a Frank, supposed to be a lawful prize, and consequently without being made ' to bleed' a little." Note 7
This is the first published notice of Mezzofanti which has come under my observation ; and it is particularly interesting as an early example of his habit of cultivating not only the principal languages, but the minor varieties of each. The knowledge that, when he had barely completed his thirtieth year, he was reputed to be master of more than twenty-four languages, may perhaps prepare us to regard with less incredulity the marvels which we shall find related of his more advanced career.


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Note 1
A similar narrative was published as late as 1817 by Pananti. "Avvenuvre ed Osservazioni sopra le Coste di Barberia." Firenze 1817 It was translated into English by Mr. Blacquiere, and pub¬lished in 1819. In the end of the seventeenth century, France and England severally compelled the Dey of Algiers to enter into treaties by which their subjects were protected from these piratical outrages; and in the following century, the increasing naval power of the other great European states tended to secure for them a similar im¬munity. But the weaker maritime states of the Mediterranean, especially Naples, Sicily, and Sardinia, were still exposed not only to attacks upon their vessels at sea, but even to descents upon their shores, in which persons of every age and sex were carried off and sold into slavery, The long wars of the Revolution secured a sort of impunity for these outrages, which at length reached such a height, that when, in 1816, the combined English and Dutch squadron under Lord Exmouth destroyed the arsenal and fleet of Algiers, the number of Christian captives set at liberty was no less than ten hundred and eighty-three. Nevertheless even still the evil was not entirely abated; nor can the secure navigation of the Mediterranean be said to have been completely established till the final capture of Algiers by the French under Duperre and Bourmont, in 1830.

Note 2
In virtue of a treaty made in 1683, after the memorable bardment of Algiers by Admiral Du Quesne.

Note 3
The Moorish form of the common Arabic name Tezkerah, [in Egypt, (see Burton's" Medinah and Meccah," I. 26.) Tazkiręh] of a passport. The Moorish Arabic differs considerably (especially in the vowel sounds,) from the common dialect of the East. Caussin de Percival's Grammar contains both dialects, and a special Grammar of Moorish Arabic was published at Vienna by Dombay, of which Mezzofanti was already possessed (inf. 178.) Both the Grammars named above are in the Mezzofanti Library. Calalogo, pp. 14 and 17. Father Caronni gives a fac-simile of a portion of the Tiscara.

Note 4
Sidi Hamudah had been Bey of Tunis from the'year 1782, when he succeeded his brother, Ali Bey. He survived till 1815. His reign is described as the Augustan age of Tunis (Diary of a Tour in Barbary, II. 79). Father Caronni tells of him that when one of his generals,—a Christian,—was about to become a Mahomedan in the hope of ingratiating himself with Hamudah, he rebuked the rene¬gade for his meanness. "A hog," said he, "remains always a hog in my eyes, even though he has lost his tail."

Note 5
This month is called in the common Arabic of Egypt Gumada. There are two of the Mahomedan months called by this name, Gumada-l-Oola, and Gumada-t-Taniyek (Lane's Modern Egyptians, I. 330). The latter, which is the sixth month of the year, is the one meant here. As the Mahomedan year consists of only three hundred and fifty days, it is hardly necessary to say that its months do not permanently correspond with those of our year. They retro¬grade through the several seasons during a cycle of thirty-three years.

Note 6
The year of the Hegira, 1219, corresponds with A.D. 1804.

Note 7
Ragguaglio del Viaggio, vol. II. p. 140-1. Milan 1806.—The book, though exceedingly rambling and discursive, is not uninteresting The second part contains the Author's antiquarian speculations, which curiously anticipate some of the results of the recent explorations at Tunis. " Pressed as I am, by my many occupations," he says, November 11, 1805, "I cannot delay writing at least a few lines, in grateful acknowledgment of the kindnesses which I received from you during my happy sojourn in your city. I had been prepared for this, as well by the reports of others regarding your amiable disposition, as by the courtesy which I had myself experienced ; but all my anticipations had fallen far short of the reality. Feeling that it is impossible for me to offer you a suitable acknowledgment, I beg that, although I have neither words to express it, nor means of giving it effect, you will believe me to be deeply sensible of my obligation to yon. I shall preserve all your valued presents with most jealous care. The ' Persian Anthology' Note 8 has been greatly relished by all here who apply to the study of that language.
" I shall often have to claim your indulgence for the trouble which I shall not fail to give you. After the many proofs I have had of your kindness, I feel that I should be offending you, were I to ask you to let me hope to reckon myself henceforward among your friends."

Note 8
This book is still in the Mezzofanti Library. It is entitled Anthologia Persiana: Seu selecta e diversis Persicis Auctoribus in Latinum translata, 4to. Vienna, 1778. See the "Oatalogo delta Libreria del Card. Mezzofanti," p. 109.

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