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      * Baron von Zach
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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1820 to 1823 > Baron von Zach

Caturegli's reputation and the excellent condition of his observatory, induced the celebrated Plungarian Astronomer, Baron Von Zach, who, after a career of much and varied adventure, was at that time engaged in editing at Genoa the Correspondance Astronomique, (a French continuation of his former German Journal Monatliche Correspondenzfur Erz-und Himmels-Kunde,) to select Bologna as the place from which to observe this interesting phenomenon. He was accompanied by a Russian nobleman, Prince Volkonski, a man of highly cultivated literary and scientific tastes, and by Captain Smyth of H. M. Ship, Aid, who had just completed his survey of the Ionian Islands. Notwithstanding numerous and urgent applications from other quarters, these three distinguished foreigners, together with his friend Mezzofanti, were the only persons whom Caturegli admitted to the observatory during his observations of the eclipse.

The Baron published in his JournalNote 1 a very full account of the phenomena of the eclipse, to which he appended as a note the following sketch of his companion on the occasion.

" The annular eclipse of the sun," he writes, " was one curiosity for us, and Signor Mezzofanti was another. This extraordinary man is really a rival of Mithridates; he speaks thirty-two languages, living and dead, in the manner I am going to describe. He accosted me in Hungarian, and with a compliment so well turned, and in such excellent Magyar, that I was quite taken by surprise and stupefied. He afterwards spoke to me in German, at first in good Saxon (the Crusca of the Germans,) and then in the Austrian and Swabian dialects, with a correctness of accent that amazed me to the last degree, and made me burst into a lit of laughter at the thought of the contrast between the language and the appearance of this astonishing professor. He spoke English to Captain Smyth, Russian and Polish to Prince Vol-konski, not stuttering and stammering, but with the same volubility as if he had been speaking his mother tongue, the dialect of Bologna. I was quite unable to tear myself away from him, At a dinner at the cardinal legate's, Delia Spina, his eminence placed me at table next him; after having chatted with him in several languages, all of which he spoke much better than I did, it came into my head to address to him on a sudden some words of Wallachian. Without hesitation, and without appearing to remark what an out-of-the-way dialect I had branched off to, off went my polyglot in the same language, and so fast, that I was obliged to say to him ; Gently, gently, Mr. Abbe; I really can't follow you; I am at the end of my Latin-Wallachian.' It was more than forty years since I had spoken the language, or even thought of it, though I knew it very well in my youth, when I served in an Hungarian regiment, and was in garrison at Transylvania. The professor was not only more ready in the language than I, but he informed me on this occasion, that he knew another tongue that I had never been able to get hold of, though I had enjoyed better opportunities of doing so than he, as I formerly had men that spoke it in my regiment.

" This was the language of the Zigans, or Gipsies, whom the French so improperly call Bohemians, at which the good and genuine Bohemians, that is to say, the inhabitants of the kingdom of Bohemia, are not a little indignant. But how could an Italian abbe, who had never been out of his native town, find means to learn a language that is neither written nor printed ? In the Italian wars an Hungarian regiment was in garrison at Bologna : the language-loving professor discovered a gipsy in it, and made him his teacher; and, with the facility and happy memory that nature has gifted him with, he was soon master of the language, which, it is believed, is nothing but a dialect, and a corrupted one into the bargain, of some tribes of Parias of Hin-dostan." Note 2

The wide and peculiar circulation of the journal in which this interesting sketch appeared, contributed more than any previous notice to extend the fame of Mezzofanti. As might naturally be expected, how¬ever, details so marvellous, were received with consi¬derable incredulity by some, and were explained away by others as mere embellishments of a traveller's tale.

In consequence, Von Zach, in a subsequent number of his journal, not only reiterated the statement, but added fuller and more interesting particulars regarding it.

" Many persons have doubted," he writes, " what we said of this astonishing professor of Bologna in our fourth volume; as there have also been persons who doubted what Valerius Maxim us re¬lates of the analogous talents of Cyrus and Mithridales. Although all historians have the character of being a little given to lying, Valerius, notwithstanding, passes for a sufficiently veracious author. He says in the eighth book and 9th chapter of his History, or rather of his Compendium of History: Cyrus ommi-um militum suorum nomina, Mithridates duarum et viginti gentium qua sub regno ejus erant linguas, ediscendo. People who came several centuries after, and who probably did not know more than one language, and possibly not even that one correctly, have pretended that the twenty-two languages of Mithridates were only different dialects, and that Cyrus only knew the names of his generals. It may be so ; we know nothing of the reality, and consequently shall not contradict those critics ; but what we do know is, that Signor Mezzofanti speaks very good German, Hungarian, Slavonic, Wallachian, Russian, Polish, French and English. I have mentioned my authorities. It has been said that Prince Volkonski and Captain Smyth gave their testimony in favour of this wonderful professor, out of politeness only. But I asked the prince alone, how the professor spoke Russian, and he told me he should be very glad if his own son spoke it as well. The child spoke English and French better than Russian, having always been in foreign countries with his father. The captain said, 'the professor speaks English better than I do ; we sailors knock the language to pieces on board our vessels, where we have Scotch and Irish, and foreigners of all sorts; there is often an odd sort of jargon spoken in a ship ; the professor speaks with correctness, and even with elegance; it is easy to see that he has studied the language.

"M. Mezzofanti came one day to see me at the hotel where I was staying: I happened not to be in my own rooms, but on a visit to another traveller who lodged in the same hotel, Baron Ulmenstein, a colonel in the King of Hanover's service, who was travelling with his lady. M. Mezzofanti was brought to me ; and, as I was the only person who knew him, I introduced him to the company as a professor and librarian of the university. He took part in the conversation, which was carried on in German ; and, after this had gone on for a considerable time, the baroness took an opportunity of asking me aside, how it came to pass that a German was a professor and librarian in an Italian university. I replied, that M. Mezzofanti was no German, that he was a very good Italian, of that city of Bologna, and had never been out of it. Judge of the astonishment of all the company, and of the explanations that followed ! My readers, I am sure, will not think such a testimony as the Baroness Uhnenstein's open to any sus¬picion. She is a thorough German, highly cultivated, and speaks four languages in great perfection." Note 3

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Note 1
Correspondance Astronomique, February 20. The reader may be puzzled at this seemingly anticipatory date ; but the issue of the journal was extremely irregular, and the February number was in reality not published till after September in that year.

Note 2
Correspondance Astronomique, vol. iv. p.p. 191-2.

Note 3
Correspondance Astronomique, vol. v. p. 160.

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