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Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1831 > Libri's account

It is to these political animosities that allusion is made in the following extremely interesting account of Mezzofanti. It is from the pen of the distinguished historian of the mathematical sciences in Italy, M. Libri ; whose name is in itself sufficient to stamp with authority any statement bearing upon a subject in which he has proved himself a master.

For this most interesting communication I am indebted to the good offices of Mr. Watts, to whom it was addressed by M.Libri, in reply to an inquiry kindly made on my behalf by that gentleman. M. Libri's letter is in English, and the purity of its language and elegance of its style are in themselves no slight evidence of his competence to pronounce upon Mezzofanti's accomplishments as a linguist, no less than as a mathematician. 

M. Libri's meeting with Mezzofanti occurred at Bologna early in 1830, in the course of a literary tour in which M. Libri was then engaged.

Among all these eminent men, the one that interested me most was unquestionably the Abbé, (afterwards Cardinal) Mezzofanti, who was then librarian at Bologna, and respecting whose astonishing power in languages I had heard the most extraordinary anecdotes. During a short excursion which I had previously made to Bologna, I had already got a glimpse of that celebrated man: but it was not until 1830 that I could be said to have seen him. I was presented to him by one of my friends, Count Bianchetti, and I was received by him with great kindness. He made me promise to go and see him again, and offered to show me the library. I accepted his offer eagerly ; but it was principally in the hope of having a long conversation with him that I repaired to the library next day.

Before going farther, I ought to say that I approached him with mixed feelings. Personally, I have always been disposed to respect and admire every man who possesses an incontestable superiority in any branch of human knowledge; and in this point of view, M. Mezzofanti, whom every body acknowledges to be the man who knew and could speak more languages than any other living man, had certainly a right to boundless admiration on my part. It was popularly reported at Bologna, that M. Mezzofanti, then fifty years old, knew as many languages as he counted years; and I had heard related in respect to him, by men in whose veracity I have full confidence, so many extraordinary histories, that he became in my eyes a sort of hero of legend or romance; but a hero of flesh and blood, who realized or even surpassed all the wonders attributed to Mithridates as a linguist. On the other hand, the liberal party, who certainly had no sympathies with the Abbé Mezzofanti, spread reports against him, by no means flattering; among which the one that had most frequently reached my ears, consisted in its being ceaselessly repeated, that the celebrated librarian at Bologna was a sort of parrot, endowed with the faculty of articulating sounds which he had heard, that he was only a miracle of memory, understanding having nothing to do with it; and that, independently of this trick of getting words by heart, this extraordinary man possessed no solid information, and little philological erudition. Without blindly adopting this bare assertion, I must acknowledge that the judgment passed on Mezzofanti by persons of some consideration, had made an impression upon my mind, far from being favorable to him : but that impression was soon dissipated in the course of the interview I had with him. Before leaving Florence, I had just read and carefully studied the treatise on Indefinite Algebra, composed several ages before by Brahmegupta, and which, translated and enriched with an admirable introduction by Colebroke, had been published in London, in 1817. Being still filled with admiration for the labours of the ancient Hindoos on indeterminate analysis, I mentioned the book casually to Mezzofanti, and merely to show him that even a man almost exclusively devoted to the study of mathematics, might take a lively interest in the labours of the Orientalists. I had no intention of introducing a scientific conversation on this subject with the celebrated librarian ; and I must even add, that I thought him quite incapable of engaging in one. How great then was my surprise, when I saw him immediately seize the opportunity, and speak to me during half an hour on the astronomy and mathematics of the Indian races, in a way which would have done honour to a man whose chief occupation had been tracing the history of the sciences. Deeply astonished at so specific a knowledge, which had taken me quite unexpectedly, I eagerly sought explanation from him on points which had seemed to me the most difficult in the history of India; such, for instance, as the probable epoch when certain Indian astronomers had lived, before the Mahometan conquest, and how far those astronomers might have been able, directly or indirectly, to borrow from the Greeks. On all those points Mezzofanti answered on the spot, with great modesty, and as a man who knows how to doubt; but-proving to me at the same time, that those were questions on which his mind had already paused, and which he had approached with all the necessary accomplishment of the accessory sciences. I cannot express how much that conversation interested me; and I did not delay to testify to Mezzofanti all the admiration which knowledge at once so varied and so profound, had excited in me. No more was said of visiting the library, or of seeing books. I had before me a most extraordinary living book, and one well calculated to confound the imagination. Encouraged by his courtesy and modesty, I could not resist my desire of putting questions to him on the mode which he had employed in making himself master of so many languages, He positively assured me, but without entering into any detail, that it was a thing less difficult than was generally thought; that there is in all languages a limited number of points to which it is necessary to pay particular attention; and that, when one is once master of those points, the remainder follows with great facility. He added, that, when one has learned ten or a dozen languages essentially different from one another, one may, with a little study and attention, learn any number of them. I strenuously urged him to publish his experience on the subject and on the result of his labours; but I observed in him a great aversion to the publication of his researches. He affirmed that the more we study, the more do we understand how difficult it is to avoid falling into errors; and, in speaking to me of several writings which he had composed, he told me that they were only essays which by no means deserved to see the light. In the midst of the conversation, as I was still urging him, he rose and went to look in a box for a manuscript with colored designs, which he showed, me, and which had for its object the explanation of the Mexican hieroglyphics. Having begged him to publish at least that work, he told me that it was only an essay, still imperfect, and that his intention was to recast it completely.

This excursion to America suggested to me the idea of putting a new question to him. I had collected at Florence, particularly with relation to bibliography, several translations of the whole Bible, or certain portions of the sacred books, in different foreign languages. Some of these translations were into languages spoken by North American savages; and in looking through them I had been struck with the measureless length of most of the words of these tongues. Since the opportunity presented itself naturally, I asked M. Mezzofanti what he thought of those words, and whether the men who spoke languages apparently so calculated to put one out of breath, did not seem to be endowed with peculiar organs. Immediately taking down a book written in one of those languages, the celebrated linguist showed me practically how, in his opinion, the savages managed to pronounce these interminable words, without too much trouble. For fear of making mistakes, I cannot venture, after twenty-five years, to reproduce this explanation from memory. According to my usual practice, I had written out, on my return home, the conversation which I had just had with the celebrated linguist, and if I still possessed that part of my journal, you would find there almost the exact words of the Abbé Mezzofanti; but those papers having been taken away from me by people who, under a pretext as ridiculous as odious, despoiled me, after the revolution of 1848, of all that I possessed at Paris, I must confine myself to mentioning the fact of the explanation which was given to me, without being able to tell you in what that explanation consisted.

After what I have just recounted to you, I could add nothing to express to you the opinion which that long conversation with M. Mezzofanti (which during the few days that I passed at Bologna was followed by some other interviews much shorter, and as it were fugitive,) left in my mind on the subject of the erudition, as profound as it was various, of that universal linguist. As, however, I express here an opinion which certainly was not that of everybody, permit me to corroborate that opinion by the testimony of  Giordania man not only celebrated in Italy for the admirable purity of his style, but who also enjoyed deserved reputation as a profound Grecian, and a consummate Latin scholar. The testimony of Giordani on the subject of the Abbé Mezzofanti is the more remarkable, because, besides Giordani's having (as is generally known) a marked antipathy for the ultra-catholic party to which Mezzofanti was thought to belong, he and the Abbé had had some little personal quarrels the remembrance of which was not effaced. Notwithstanding this, I read in the letters of Giordani lately published at Milan, that, in his opinion, Mezzofanti was quite a superior man.

M Libri proceeds to cite several passages from Giordani's letters, which, as 1 have already quoted them in their proper place, it is needless to repeat here. Indeed no additional testimony could add weight to his own authority on any of the subjects to which he refers in this most interesting letter.

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