Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti

Cardinal Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti

Giuseppe Caspar Mezzofanti (19 September 1774 – 15 March 1849) was an Italian cardinal and famed hyperpolyglot.


Born and educated in Bologna, he completed his theological studies before he had reached the minimum age for ordination as a priest; he was ordained in 1797. In the same year, he became professor of Arabic 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.

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.[1] 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, Czechish, or Bohemian, 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.[2]


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica (1911)
  2. 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. 463465). 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).


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