Where the malcontent and the hyperpolyglot meet

italian language via malcontenti bologna

I recently watched a whole night of Italian language TV and felt pretty good that I’d followed more than enough of it to know what was going on. While I might not have understood word for word, I wasn’t struggling and really having to listen intently to it all.

My Dutch never got to that level, though I can read Dutch better than I can understand it being spoken. And I can’t speak either language all that easily at the moment. I get tongue tied and stumble and come out with endings and conjugations that I know are wrong as soon as they come out of my mouth. I also find myself speaking a hybrid of Dutch and Italian sometimes, especially when chatting to my dog, Charlie. He’s Dutch, after all, and knows his commands in Dutch, so I’m obliged to still speak some Dutch.

All of this is my way of saying that while I’m making some headway again with the Italian language, I will never be a strong polyglot. I definitely won’t be a hyperpolyglot like Giuseppe Mezzofanti.

A Way With Words

Mezzofanti (1774 – 1849) was born here in Bologna to a family of humble origins. He became a cardinal, but was perhaps best known for being a hyperpolyglot, in that he was said to have spoken around 38 languages fluently and had a basic knowledge of dozens more.

In 1797, he became a professor of Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Asian languages at the University of Bologna, and in 1803 he was appointed assistant librarian of the Institute of Bologna. Not bad for a carpenter’s son.

Misfits and Malcontents

It does seem that there is some disagreement nowadays that Mezzofanti would have truly been fluent in so many languages. There is talk that the requirements were primarily in reading and writing, and that his ability and need to speak was typically limited to basic chit chat. No matter what the actual story may be, he seems to have been truly gifted when it came to languages. I remember only a little from the five and a half years of French I studied at school — though it has helped me some with Italian — and my attempts at learning Russian were a complete disaster. Even if Mezzofanti could only hold the most basic of conversations in 38 languages, I’m still impressed!

So how did I learn about this linguistic dynamo? I was wandering around town and found myself on Via Malcontenti. I’m easily amused and I couldn’t help but wonder about the malcontents that gave the street its name. In pausing to photograph the street name I happened to spot a memorial plaque, though I couldn’t really read it clearly at the time. Thank goodness for zoom lenses!

italian language via malcontenti bologna

With a bit of zooming and Googling, I learned about Giuseppe Mezzofanti and the fact that he was born and raised there on Via Malcontenti. There’s more to his story, including becoming the Custodian-in-Chief at the Vatican Library. You should check out this site if you’d like to learn more.

It’s amazing the bits of history you can stumble across, just by taking a few extra photos while wandering around a city. Even if you don’t understand the Italian language — or the language of whatever country you’re in — take a few extra zoom shots of these kinds of markers and then go back and get what you can from Google and Google Translate (or your search/translator of preference). Sometimes they’re older plaques like this and sometimes they’re modern ones with more information. Either way, it’s a fun way to expand your knowledge. I’m sure Mezzofanti would approve of that.

italian language via malcontenti bologna

italian language via malcontenti bologna

Big Pope Is Watching You at Palazzo Comunale

No, I haven’t been rereading 1984, but it really can sometimes feel like the statue of the pope is watching you when you’re standing over by the grand entrance to the Palazzo d’Accursio, better known as Palazzo Comunale in the Piazza Maggiore.

palazzo comunale palazzo d'accursio bologna

Originally the home of Accursio, a law teacher at the Bologna University, over the years his home was joined with other buildings until in 1336, it became the residence of the Elders, the highest judiciary in the city and the seat of city government. In fact, it retained some of its function as the town hall until November 2008.

From my first visit to Bologna, the Palazzo Comunale and the statue over the door made an impression on me and was one of the buildings I remembered specifically. It turns out the building has undergone quite a few changes over the centuries, particularly in the first half of the 15th century. That was when the clock tower was added. It even had a wooden automata that included the Madonna and child and Magi, which remained until 1796.

palazzo comunale palazzo d'accursio bologna

The grand entrance portal was added in the mid 1500s by architect Galeazzo Alessi. In 1580, a statue of Pope Gregory XIII (January 1502 – 10 April 1585), sculpted by Alexander Menganti, was included. As well as being from Bologna and encouraging cultural patronage, Pope Gregory XIII is best known as the pope who commissioned the Gregorian calendar (named for him), which we still use today.

palazzo comunale bologna pope gregory xiii

The building may no longer be the town hall, but it does still fly the flags of Italy, the European Union, and Bologna. And yes, the Bologna flag with the red cross on the white background does look an awful lot like the English flag. The cross of St. George is a popular one in Italy.

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Famous Bolognese: Guglielmo Marconi

Radio. I haven’t had a physical one in almost nine years and miss it occasionally, though there’s always the online option. In fact, years ago, while still living in the US, I used to listen to Italian radio online, just to practice listening to Italian. I blame my love of cheesy Italian pop on all that time spent listening to RTL 102.5. That and the limited selection of Italian CDs for sale at my local Borders bookstore at the time.

Anyway, it seems appropriate that I used to listen to Italian radio, even if online, as the man who is generally credited as the inventor of radio is an Italian, Guglielmo Marconi (Bologna, 25 April 1874 – Roma, 20 July 1937). As it turns out, not only is he Italian, he was from Bologna!

For the record, he didn’t specifically invent the radio, but he did  developed the first apparatus for long distance radio communication.  He also won a Nobel Prize in Physics, along with Karl Ferdinand Braun, for  contributions to the development of wireless telegraphy. He was just 27 when he received the first transatlantic radio signal. He would go on to become a successful businessman, entrepreneur, and through a continuing series of innovations, he was able to help make commercial radio into a success.

Nowadays, if you fly into Bologna, you’ll arrive at the Bologna Guglielmo Marconi Airport. Then, if you’re sticking around town for a while, you can follow one of the Marconi-inspired itineraries available from Bologna Welcome, where you can learn more about this famous son of Bologna.

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