* Legendary Tales
|LIFE OF CARDINAL MEZZOFANTI|
Home > Mezzofanti > Biography > 1774 to 1798 > Legendary Tales
It may be supposed that in the case of Mezzofanti, as in those of most men who attain to eminence in life, there are not wanting marvelous tales of his youthful studies, and anecdotes of the first indications of the extraordinary gift by which his later years were distinguished.
According to one of these accounts, his first years were entirely neglected, and he was placed, while yet a mere child, in the workshop of his father, to learn the trade of a carpenter. As is usual in the towns of Italy, the elder Mezzofanti, for the most part, plied his craft not within doors, but in the open street: and it chanced that the bench at which the boy was wont to work was situated directly opposite the window of a school kept by an old priest, who instructed a number of pupils in Latin and Greek. Although utterly unacquainted, not only with the Greek alphabet, but even with that of his own language, young Mezzofanti, overhearing the lessons which were taught in the school, caught up every Greek and Latin word that was explained in the several classes, without once having seen a Greek or Latin book ! By some lucky accident the fact came to the knowledge of his unwitting instructor : it led of course to the withdrawal of the youth from the mechanical craft to which his father had destined him, and rescued him for the more congenial pursuit of literature Note 1.
A still more marvellous tale is told by a popular American writer, Mr. Headley, whom his transatlantic admirers have styled the "Addison of America" ; that while Mezzofanti " was still an obscure priest in the north of Italy, he was called one day to confess two foreigners condemned for piracy, who were to be executed next day. On entering their cell, he found them unable to understand a word he uttered. Overwhelmed with the thought that the criminals should leave the world without the benefits of religion, he returned to his room, resolved to acquire the language before morning. He accomplished his task, and next day confessed them in their own tongue ! From that time on, he had no trouble in mastering the most difficult language. The purity of his motive in the first instance, he thought, influenced the Deity to assist him miraculously Note 2. This strange tale Mr. Headley relates, on the authority of a priest, a friend of Mezzofanti; and he goes so far as to say, that " Mezzofanti himself attributed his power of acquiring languages to the divine influence." The imagination might dwell with pleasure upon these and similar tales of wonder ; but, happily for the moral lesson which it is the best privilege of biography to convey, the true history of the early studies of Mezzofanti, (although while falling far short of these marvels, it is too wonderful to be held out as a model even for the most aspiring) is, nevertheless, such as to show that the most gifted themselves can only hope to attain to true eminence by patient and systematic industry.
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