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     · 1843-1849
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The life of Cardinal Mezzofanti
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C. W. Russel, D.D., 1863, Longman & Green, London, hard cover, 502 pages, 142 mm X 226 mm X 31 mm

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Table of contentsTable of contents
Table of contentsTable of contents
I first read about cardinal Mezzofanti (1774-1849), one of history's most renowned linguists, in an article about polyglots in a russian magazine. Cardinal Mezzofanti is the Guiness Book World of Records all time recorded recordman of polyglots with over 27 languages fluently spoken.

There is very little material available on the internet about Mezzofanti, and no books in prints. A bit desperate, I looked in the online catalogs of several national libraries, including the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. A couple of titles came up that seemed to discuss the life of this remarkable man. Finally, looking into used books databases, I located of copy of The Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti by Russel in a small bookshop in Edinburgh, Scotland. The guy mailed the copy to me and a few days later it was in my letterbox.

This book is great if you are a polyglot!

The first part is a long and detailed survey of all polyglots -called linguists- known in history, grouped by country of origin, explaining who they were, what languages they spoke and how well, how they learned those languages, etc...

The second part tells the life of Cardinal Mezzofanti, explaining his childhood where he would sit outside a latin school in Bologna and pick up latin that was being taught to rich children, then speak it perfectly after only a few months. Then his slow rise in the church's hierarchy and his move to Rome where he was called against his will by his friend the pope Pius VII.

The third part reviews in considerable details Mezzofanti's language achievements by grouping each language he is reputed to have mastered in a category according to the level of his mastery and the proof we have that he actually spoke it. Many travellers, such as Lord Byron, came to visit Mezzofanti and they always tried him in the languages they spoke to see if he could actually speak it. More often than not they reported that he spoke it accentlessly, even for smaller languages such as Welsh, and that he would joke in those languages.

In annex there are samples of Mezzofanti's writings in various languages. Mezzofanti didn't write anything himself and he is not considered to be a great intellectual but rather a man with an extraordinary capability for language learning.

If you speak several languages and like to read about polyglots (like you would read about sport stars if you do sports), this book is a must. I have not found one that dealt more extensively about the topic of polyglots.

To find it you should try or some similar service. I paid mine £70 in 2001.

There are other books that look similar to this one so don't be confused. Russell first published his research in a long article which you can find as a folio (torn out of the book), but this is nowhere as good as the book. Then there is an article by Thomas WATTS in response to Russell's article, On Dr Russell's Life of Cardinal Mezzofanti, which I have not seen.

Let me know if you find any more material about Cardinal Mezzofanti!

For more information read a biography C.W. Russell, the author of the book or a biography of Mezzofanti himself.

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