Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti
Born to humble parents in Bologna, he showed exceptional mnemonic skills as well as a flair for music and foreign language learning from a very young age. He studied at the Piarists where he had the chance to meet several missionaries from various countries. By talking to them he began learning several new languages including Swedish, German, Spanish and Southern American native languages as well as studying Latin and ancient Greek in school. He completed his theological studies before he had reached the minimum age for ordination as a priest. During this period he also studied Asian Languages; in 1797 he was ordained a priest and became professor of Arabic, Hebrew, Asian Languages and Greek at the University of Bologna. He later lost the position for refusing to take the oath of allegiance required by the Cisalpine Republic, which governed Bologna at the time. Between 1799 and 1800 he visited many foreign people who had been wounded during the Napoleonic wars to attend to their cures. In this occasion he started to learn other European languages.
In 1803 he was appointed assistant librarian of the Institute of Bologna, and soon afterwards was reinstated as professor of Oriental languages and of Greek. The chair of Oriental languages was suppressed by the viceroy in 1808, but again rehabilitated on the restoration of Pope Pius VII in 1814. Mezzofanti held this post until he left Bologna to go to Rome in 1831 as a member of the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Congregatio de Propaganda Fide), the Catholic Church's governing body for missionary activities. In 1833, he succeeded Angelo Mai as Custodian-in-Chief of the Vatican Library, and in 1838 was made cardinal of the title of St. Onofrio al Gianicolo and director of studies in the Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith. His other diverse interests included ethnology, archaeology, numismatics, and astronomy.
List of languages spoken
Mezzofanti was well known for being a hyperpolyglot who according to Russell 1858 spoke at least thirty languages "with rare excellence",
Hebrew, Rabbinical Hebrew, Arabic, Chaldee, Coptic, Ancient Armenian, Modern Armenian, Persian, Turkish, Albanese, Maltese, Greek, Romaic, Latin, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Flemish, English, Illyrian, Russian, Polish, Czech, Magyar, Chinese.
He was reported to have spoken nine other languages fluently, and with dozens of others he is said to have had at least basic knowledge.
- Encyclopædia Britannica (1911)
- The precise number of languages known to Mezzofanti is rather uncertain, naturally so because of the relativity of the concept of "knowing" a language. Russell (1858) gives a list of 114 items he received from Mezzofanti's nephew (pp. 463–465). Apart from the thirty languages "frequently tested, and spoken with rare excellence", Russell lists another nine "spoken fluently, but hardly sufficiently tested", namely: Syriac, Geez, Amarinna, Hindostani, Guzarattee, Basque, Wallachian, Californian, Algonquin (p. 467; for "Californian", an unknown native language of "Californian youths" Mezzofanti taught at the Propaganda, see p. 355).
- Alphons Bellesheim, Giuseppe Cardinal Mezzofanti (Würzburg, 1880)
- This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Mezzofanti, Giuseppe Caspar". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
- Charles William Russell, Life of the Cardinal Mezzofanti (1858)
- Augustin Manavitt, Esquisse historique sur le cardinal Mezzofanti (1853)
- U. Benigni, Giuseppe Mezzofanti, Catholic Encyclopedia (1911)