Mezzofanti, Giuseppe

views updated


Cardinal, linguist; b. Bologna, Sept. 17, 1774; d. Rome, March 15, 1849. His father was a poor carpenter. Gifted with a prodigious memory, in boyhood he learned Latin, Greek, Spanish, and Swedish. As a seminarian he mastered Hebrew, Arabic, and other Oriental languages. After ordination (1797), he taught Arabic at the University of Bologna, but he lost his post when he refused to take the oath of allegiance to the Cisalpine Republic. To support himself he then acted as a tutor. He returned to Bologna as professor of Hebrew and Greek from 1803 until 1808, when the chair was suppressed, and again from 1814 to 1831, when he was called to Rome as canon of the Basilica of St. Mary Major and a member of the philological college of the University of Rome. Meanwhile, he studied Chinese at the Capodimonte College in Naples. In 1833 he was named prefect of the vatican library and canon of St. Peter's Basilica, and in 1838 cardinal and member of the Congregations of Propaganda, Rites, Index, and Revision of Books of the Oriental Church. He could speak about 40 languages, had a fair knowledge of about 30 more, and a familiarity with another 45 dialects. He contributed much to the science of comparative linguistics. Pressure of his other duties never permitted Mezzofanti to publish any of his studies. Most of his manuscripts and letters are deposited in the communal library of the Archiginnasio of Bologna. Several of his manuscripts were published after his death.

Bibliography: c. w. russell, The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti (London 1858). m. de camillis, Il cardinale G. Mezzofanti, principe dei poliglotti (Rome 1937).

[h. r. marraro]