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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1807 to 1814 > Greek Scolarship

A famous latinist comes to test Mezzofanti's scholarship as a latinist, with the firm intention to prove that a man who divides his attention between so many languages can have but a superficial understanting of each of them. After some time a friend of the latinist asks him what he thinks of Mezzofanti. He replies By Bacchus, he is the Devil!. Another scholar says of Mezzofanti that He appears as though he had been born in the beginning of the world, and, like St. Anthony, had lived in every age and in every country !    

Nor is Giordani's report to be regarded as one of those vague panegyrics, which, when Mezzofanti's fame was established, each new visitor was wont to re-echo. Giordani is not only well-known as one of the purest Italian writers of the century, but enjoyed the highest reputation as a critical scholar ; and the subject on which, in another of his letters, he defers to the judgment of Mezzofanti—a delicate question of Greek criticism—was precisely that on which he himself was best qualified to pronounce. In a letter to the Abate Canova (Feb 3, 1812,) he mentions a conjecture that had recently interested him very much; viz., that the great Roman architect, Vitruvius, was a Greek, although he wrote in Latin. His chief argument is based upon Vitruvius's Latiuity, in which he detects traces of foreign idiom. But, lest he should yield too much to fancy, he had appealed to the judgment of some of his colleagues, and he communicates the result to his correspondent. One of the persons thus consulted was Mezzofanti. I should not rely on my own judgment, says Giordani, had I not convinced Cicognara and Mezzofanti that it is right. The authority of the latter is the more important, because my argument rests chiefly on the style, in every line of which I find impressed, even where the subject is not technical, traces of halting [storpiato] and ill-translated Greek; and you know what a judge Mezzofanti is of this point .Note 1

In a letter to another friend, Count Leopoldo Cicognara, (since known as the biographer of Canova) Note 2Giordani reports the sequel of this discussion, which confirms in a very remarkable manner, Giordani's judgment of Mezzofanti's critical sagacity. Mezzofanti had at first assented to Giordani's conjecture ; but on a closer examination he discovered, that what Giordani had considered the Grecisms of Vitruvius's style, were, in reality, but translations from various Greek authors, from whom Vitruvius largely borrows, and whom he actually enumerates in the preface of the seventh book. Mezzofanti further pointed out a phrase in the same preface which at once put an end to the discussion, and the discovery of which, as Giordani justly observes, in itself indicated an inquiring and critical mind . Vitruvius, in speaking of the Latin writers upon his art, as contradistinguished from the Greek, calls them " antiqui nostri" Note 3

To the same friend, Count Cicognara, Giordani in a previous letter, dated January 30th, 1812, had written of Mezzofanti's own peculiar faculty of languages, in terms of almost rapturous admiration. You know Mezzofanti," he says;—"Mezzofanti—the rarest, most unheard of, most inconceivable of living men. I call him, and he is, the man of all nations and all ages. By Jove ! He appears as though he had been born in the beginning of the world, and, like St. Anthony, had lived in every age and in every country !  Note 4

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Note 1
Ibid, pp. 235.36

Note 2
Cicognara is mentioned by Byron in the Dedication of the Fourth Canto of Childe Harold (VIII. 192.) among " the great names which Italy has still,"

Note 3
Opere di Pietro Giordani; Edited (with a biography) by Antonio Gussalli. Gussalli is also the translator of F. Cordara's " Expedition of Charles Edward," Milan: 1845. See Quarterly Review, Ixxix , pp. Hl-68.

Note 4
Opero di Pictro Giordani, II. 231.—Letter to Leopoldo Cicog-nara, Jan. 30.

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