Villoison, John Baptist Gaspard D'Ansse Det

, a very learned Frenchman, member oi the Institute, and of all the academies and learned societies of Kurope, was born at Corbeille-sur- Seine, March 5, 1750. His family was originally of Spain, but had settled in France in the early part of the seventeenth century. His father, as well as others of his ancestors, had served in the army. He began his stiuiies at a very early age at the college of Lisieux, from which he removed to that of Du Plessis, and in both was distinguished by a decided taste for the ancient languages, especially the Greek, for the sake of which he again removed to the college of Des Grassis, that he might attend the Greek lectures of M. le Beau. Under his tuition he distanced all his fellow-students, and gained all the prizes destined to those who proved the superiority of their taste in Homer. He afterwards attended the lectures of Capperonier, Greek professor in the royal college of France,‘ which were adapted to a more advanced state of proficiency, and soon made such progress as to need no other instructor than his own study. And such was the extent of his application, that he had already, although scarcely fifteen years of age, perused almost all the writers of antiquity, poets, orators, historians, philosophers, and grammarians. Having thus exhausted the usual stores of printed works, he | sought new treasures in manuscripts; and having foil’ 1 i in the library of St. Germain-des-Pres, a collection of inedited Greek lexicons, among which was that of Homer by Apollonius, he formed the design of publishing this last, which accordingly appeared in 1773, preceded by ample prolegomena, and accompanied by notes and observations, the extensive and profound erudition of which appeared very extraordinary in a young man of only twenty-two. The academy of inscriptions and belles lettres, to which Villoison submitted his work before it was printed, had admitted him a member during the preceding year, after having obtained a dispensation on account of his age, without which he could not be elected. The reason assigned was extremely honourable to him: “that having anticipated the age of profound knowledge, it was just that he should enjoy its advantages earlier than other men; and that he should outstrip them in a career of honours, as he had in that of learning.

The fame he had so justly acquired involved him now in a literary correspondence with the most eminent men of his time, who were desirous of his communications, and he soon became an authority in what regarded the Greek language. This, however, he did not permit to give any serious interruption to his studies; and the value he set on his time and labour appeared in the offence he took at the conduct of the academy. He had communicated several memoirs, of which they published only extracts, and therefore he desisted for several years from making any farther communications. His next publication was an edition of the pastoral of Longus, which appeared in 1778, and would have been an enormous volume if one of his learned friends had not prevailed on him to retrench half of his remarks, and even then its “superfluity of erudition” was objected to; “a charge,” says his biographer, “which did no injury to that species of reputation of which M. de Villoison was ambitious.

He was not however fully satisfied with its success, and thought with reason that he might be more usefully employed in publishing some valuable work, not before given to the world. He had examined the libraries of France for this purpose ineffectually, and formed a project of going to Venice, to search the library of St. Mark, to which he knew that cardinal Bessarion had left his numerous manuscripts. He accordingly set out in 1781, under the patronage of the | king, who appointed that the expenses of his journey and residence (to which no limits were fixed) should be defrayed by the government. His researches were not fruitless. In that depository, he soon discovered several inedited works of the rhetoricians and philosophers, and especially grammarians, which he deemed worthy of publication, either entire or in extracts; and these form the celebrated collection which was printed the same year, in 2 vols. 4to, under the title of “Anecdota Graeca e regia Parisiensi et e Veneta 8. Marci bibliotheca deprompta,Venice. Of this some copies were taken off“in folio, and two on vellum. It was however unfortunate that publication followed so hastily on discovery, for Villoison soon found, but found too late, that a considerable proportion of the first volume of these” Anecdota“had already been given to the public. He made however a very important discovery in the library of Mark, of a ms. of Homer, which he judged to be of the 10th century, and consequently anterior by two centuries to the commentator Eustathius. This precious volume, which does not appear to have been before examined, contained the whole Iliad, enriched with the scholia of the most eminent grammarians of antiquity. The margins also were filled with various marks by which these grammarians distinguished the verses of Homer, which they judged to be supposititious, corrupted, or transposed, from those whose genuineness was universally recognized. He immediately prepared an edition of this valuable treasure, which was published in 1788, fol. accompanied by learned prolegomena, and was regarded as one of the most valuable presents made to the literary world during the last century, and every scholar hastened with his congratulations. But, says his biographer,” the satisfaction which this brilliant success must have given to M. de Villoison was not long unmixed. He could not see, without sentiments of pain, the spirit of system abusing his discoveries to attack the glory of the father of poetry: and perverting the critical marks affixed to a great number of verses in the Iliad, in support of the darling position, that parts of this poem, even entire books, were the work of ancient rhapsodists, and the first editors, &c. and the idea that he had unintentionally furnished the basis on which these conjectures were constructed, and the weapons by which their authors pretended to defend them, troubled him so much, that he almost repented of having published his work.“| He had advanced but a little way in printing the Iliad, when he yielded to the invitation of the duke and duchess of Saxe-Weimar, who honoured him with their particular esteem, and quitting Venice, repaired to their capital. While here, he formed the collection of critical letters, printed at Zurich in 1783, under the title of” Epistolse Vinarienses, in quihus multa Graecorum scriptorum ioca emendantur ope librorum Ducalis bibliothecte,“4to. Having found in the library of St. Mark a very liberal translation of part of the Old Testament, made by a Jew in the ninth century, he laboured, during his stay at Weimar, to put it into a state fit for publication; and on his return to France in 1784, he remained some time at Strasburgh for the purpose of having it printed there under his own inspection. He soon after set out for Greece, in quest of other ancient Mss.; but after a tour of two years, found nothing of that description. He had made, however, many observations, and intended, with the aid of these, to have composed a history of ancient and modern Greece, For the same purpose he determined on a fresh perusal of all the Greek and Latin authors extant, and as Paris had now become the scene of the revolution, and all its enormities, he removed to Orleans, in the public library of which he executed his extensive plan of reading, and its fruits were fifteen large quarto volumes of extracts and observations, which were to contribute to his history of Greece. He also prepared during his retreat at Orleans, materials for a new edition of Montfaucon’s” Palasographia Graeca," all of which are now in the royal library.

After the last storms of the revolution, he returned to Paris with his treasures; and his property of other kinds having been lost in the general confusion, he endeavoured to supply his wants by a course of lectures on the Greek language, but either had few scholars, or was unable to level himself to their capacities. A professorship of modern Greek had just been founded, which was bestowed on him, but soon suppressed by Bonaparte, who, however, created for him a professorship of ancient and modern Greek in the college of France. On this he scarcely entered, when a malady, which at first he regarded as very slight, but the force of which was aggravated by degrees, put an end to his life, April 26, 1805.

Nature,” says his biographer, “had gifted Villoison with a quick and penetrating mind, but his memory, which was, in truth, a prodigy, and which he had perhaps | exercised too exclusively, appears in. some degree to have checked the developement of his other intellectual faculties, and to have prevented them from reaching their perfect growth. Insatiably desirous of knowledge, he had never too much time for reading, and he rarely appropriated any to thought and reflection; hence the incoherence, the sudden digressions, the want of proportion and integrity which are to be remarked in some of his works; hence the want of consistency and steadiness in conduct and conversation of which he sometimes incurred the charge. But these imperfections (adds his biographer) disappear before the splendour of his great and useful qualities: if he always remained young in judgment, taste, and sense of propriety, in erudition he condensed the acquisition of centuries, with all the vigour of manly age; and learned societies might esteem themselves happy if they possessed many members possessed of similar excellence, though mingled with similar alloy.1


Eloge, by Dacier, secretary of the National Institute.