A Slavic Republic of Letters

The Correspondence between Jernej Kopitar and Baron Žiga Zois

by Luka Vidmar (Author)
©2016 Monographs 248 Pages
Series: Thought, Society, Culture, Volume 2


This book discusses the correspondence between Jernej Kopitar, a co-founder of Slavic studies and proponent of Austro-Slavism, and Baron Žiga Zois, an Austrian nobleman and patron of the Slovene national revival. The author treats their letters (composed between 1808–19), which are for the most part unpublished, both as historical sources and as texts. In the first part of the book, he situates them in history and within the genre of the letter, especially in the context of Classical and Enlightenment epistolography; in the second, he deals with their importance for the development of Slavic cultural nationalisms; in particular, he argues that this correspondence successfully bound Slovene, Czech, Polish, Dalmatian, Croatian, and Serbian literati into a Slavic «republic of letters».

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Jernej Kopitar
  • Žiga Zois
  • Historical and Genre Definitions of the Kopitar-Zois Correspondence
  • Historical Definitions
  • The Epistolary Tradition of Antiquity
  • The Tradition of Horace’s Epistles
  • The Epistolary Tradition of the Renaissance
  • The Epistolary Tradition of the Enlightenment
  • Genre Definitions
  • Genuine Private Letters
  • Elements of Fiction
  • Elements of the Public Letter
  • Literary Elements
  • The Kopitar-Zois Correspondence and the Slavic National Revivals
  • The Concept of the Slovene National Reviva
  • The Organization of the Slovene National Revival
  • Valentin Vodnik
  • Jernej Kopitar
  • Jakob Zupan
  • Matevž Ravnikar and Franc Metelko
  • Janez Anton Zupančič
  • Josef Kalasanz Erberg
  • Janez Nepomuk Primic
  • A Slovene Grammar and Dictionary
  • The Carantanian-Pannonian Theory
  • Reform of the Slavic Alphabet
  • Slavic Poetry
  • The Network of Slavic Intellectuals
  • Josef Valentin Zlobický
  • Josef Dobrovský
  • Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński
  • Francesco Maria Appendini
  • Maksimilijan Vrhovac
  • Dositej Obradović
  • Pavle Solarić
  • Vuk Stefanović Karadžić
  • Politics
  • Key Political Acquaintances
  • Political Commentaries
  • Language Policy in the Illyrian Provinces
  • The Establishment of the Kingdom of Illyria
  • Political Significance
  • Conclusion
  • Sources
  • Works Cited
  • Index

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Jernej Kopitar was among the outstanding European linguists of the first half of the nineteenth century. He was one of the founders of Slavic studies, a proponent of Austro-Slavism, and one of the fathers of early Pan-Slavism. He contributed to and influenced the course of Slavic cultural nationalisms, in particular Slovene and Serbian. In addition, he significantly impacted the development of historiography, librarianship, classical philology, and Balkan studies. Kopitar was discovered and shaped by Baron Žiga Zois, a landowner, industrialist, and patron of the Slovene national revival.

This book treats their correspondence from the time of Kopitar’s arrival in Vienna in November 1808 to Zois’s death in Ljubljana in October 1819. The correspondence comprises about one hundred sixty of Kopitar’s letters to Zois and drafts of Zois’s letters to Kopitar, which are held at two institutions in Ljubljana. The correspondence was unknown to the public until 1905, when the literary historian Ivan Prijatelj discovered it in the possession of Zois’s heirs (Kidrič, ed. 1939: 15). Literary historian France Kidrič published two volumes based on Prijatelj’s transcriptions (Kidrič, ed. 1939; Kidrič, ed. 1941). He included primarily the Kopitar-Zois correspondence of 1808−10—that is, sixty-seven letters and drafts of letters that are today held at the National and University Library in Ljubljana (Zois’s letters I). Kidrič’s planned third volume of about ninety of Kopitar’s letters to Zois and drafts of Zois’s letters to Kopitar between 1810 and 1818 was never published. The originals of this third set of letters are held at the Institute of Slovene Literature and Literary Studies, part of the Research Centre of the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts (ZRC SAZU), in Ljubljana (Zois’s letters II), which is preparing its publication. In 2004, twenty-five selected letters were published in digital form and available on the Internet (Vidmar, ed. 2004).

Over the course of the past century, researchers have uncovered new information in both the published and unpublished parts of the correspondence, on the basis of which it has been possible to reconstruct Kopitar and Zois’s lives; for example, in entries in the Slovenski biografski leksikon (Kernc 1932; Valenčič et al. 1991). It has also been possible to shed light on an array of other topics related to Kopitar and Zois; for instance, their connections with Czech Slavists (Kidrič 1930; Vidmar 2006b); the evolution of the Slovene national revival (Kidrič 1929−38); and social, cultural, and language conditions in Napoleon’s Illyrian Provinces (Prijatelj 1911; Kidrič 1933; Kos 1988). The letters are exceptionally valuable to researchers because of their personal character: since they were not intended ← 7 | 8 → for a public audience, they contain details, nuances, and perspectives not found in other sources. Kopitar and Zois reacted to events more quickly and directly in their correspondence than in their other writings. All previous studies have treated their letters in a similar, traditional fashion—as a source of facts about the historical figures and their works. However, in recent decades literary studies and historiography have devised other tools for analyzing correspondence. My aim in this book is not only to present new facts about Slavic cultural nationalisms deriving from the Kopitar-Zois correspondence, but also to reconstruct the role of their letters in the historical process—meaning that I treat the letters both as historical sources and as texts.

In the first part of the book, I situate the Kopitar-Zois correspondence in history and within the genre of the letter; in the second, I deal with its importance for the development of Slavic cultural nationalisms. The term “Republic of Letters” in the title implies Enlightenment ideology and a supranational and cosmopolitan orientation, as well as the letters’ social force, which bound Slovene and other Slavic patrons, poets, writers, and linguists at the beginning of the nineteenth century.

This book is a revised, expanded, and translated version of Zoisova literarna republika: Vloga pisma v narodnih prerodih Slovencev in Slovanov, which was published in 2010 by ZRC SAZU in Ljubljana. First of all, I would like to thank Oto Luthar, Kajetan Gantar, Marko Juvan, and the other members of the ZRC SAZU board, which recommended the book for publication, along with the Peter Lang publishing house, which has agreed to include it into its program. I am happy that I was able to prepare this new edition not far from Zois’s house, in the friendly atmosphere of the ZRC SAZU Institute of Slovene Literature and Literary Studies, on Ljubljana’s New Square, where for the entire time I had the greater part of the Kopitar-Zois correspondence readily available. I am grateful to Edvard Vrečko, who graciously allowed me to use his transcriptions of a large number of the letters cited in this book. Many thanks, too, to Janko Kos, Marko Juvan, and Peter Vodopivec for their extremely helpful comments; to Timothy Pogačar for his diligent translation; and to Mimi Urbanc for her editing. I am especially grateful to Raymond Miller for closely reviewing, correcting, and improving my text. I would like to thank, as well, the Archives of the Republic of Slovenia, the Carinthian Regional Museum, the National and University Library, the National Museum of Slovenia, and the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts Library for granting me access to archival sources, visual materials, and other information. Finally, most of all, I am indebted to my wife Andreja, my daughter Anamarija, and my sons Urban and Izidor, who made every day of writing more pleasant. To them I dedicate this book.

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Jernej Kopitar

Jernej (Bartholomäus) Kopitar was born on 21 August 1780 in the village of Repnje in the Duchy of Carniola (the central Slovene province), which at the time was under the Habsburg Monarchy. He was the son of the mayor and prominent farmer, Jakob Kopitar. Between 1791 and 1800, Kopitar attended primary school, gymnasium, and the Lyceum in the Carniolan capital of Ljubljana (Kopitar 1851; Kernc 1932: 496−497). From 1800 to 1803, he was a private tutor in the noble Bonazza family, who introduced him to their relative Baron Žiga Zois. Kopitar moved to Zois’s residence in Ljubljana in 1803, working as the baron’s personal secretary, librarian, and curator of his mineral collection. He quickly made himself known in the Zois circle, which at that time was spearheading the Slovene revival. Zois encouraged and directed Kopitar’s interest in history, languages, and literature, in particular his study of Slavic languages and literatures. Ultimately, he sent him to Vienna in October 1808: there Kopitar studied law at Zois’s expense and finished writing a grammar of Slovene. In the following months, Zois arranged for its publication in Ljubljana. At the same time, he supplied recommendations for Kopitar to gain access to his acquaintances among the Viennese social and intellectual elite. In exchange, Kopitar served as Zois’s intermediary with acquaintances in Vienna. In addition, he purchased books, minerals, and technical equipment for Zois.1

In 1810, Kopitar was named censor for Slavic and Greek (later also Romanian) books and periodicals and then the fourth scriptor at the Imperial Library in Vienna. He abandoned the study of law as well as thoughts of marrying, wholly dedicating himself to a library career, scholarly work, and intellectual life. He rapidly advanced in the service, because both prefects of the Imperial Library, Józef Maksymilian Ossoliński and Moritz von Dietrichstein, highly valued his energy and talent. As an Austrian emissary to Paris in 1814, Kopitar successfully arranged the return of valuable manuscripts and books that Napoleon had plundered from the Imperial Library. In 1818, he compiled a new, modern manuscript catalog for the Imperial Library, and became head of the manuscript collection in 1819. In 1827, he was named second and in 1844 first curator of the Imperial Library. With the latter appointment he also received the title of court councillor (Hüttl-Hubert 1995). He was a member of several of the most important scholarly academies; for example, the French, Russian, Bavarian, Prussian, and Göttingen. Prussia honored ← 9 | 10 → him with the highest state order, the Pour le Mérite. Kopitar died on 11 August 1844 in Vienna, and was buried in the St. Marx Cemetery. His remains and grave marker were brought to the St. Christopher Cemetery near Ljubljana in 1897 (Kernc 1932: 505−506).

Illustration 1. Tombstone of Jernej Kopitar, 1845 and 1897, St. Christopher’s Cemetery (Navje), Ljubljana. Photograph by the author.

← 10 | 11 →

The main features of Kopitar’s views and concepts were formed at the beginning of the nineteenth century in the ambience of the Zois circle and the spirit of the late Enlightenment. His entire education and his tastes were imbued with the Classical culture of Ancient Greece (e.g., Aristophanes), Rome (e.g., Horace), and the Renaissance humanism (e.g., Erasmus of Rotterdam). He constantly expanded his broad knowledge of literature (in particular Classical, Renaissance, and Enlightenment) and brilliant knowledge of languages—including Greek, Latin, Italian, French, Romanian, German, English, Old Church Slavonic, all the Slavic languages, Hebrew, Sanskrit, and Arabic (Kernc 1932: 497, 503; Pogačnik 1977: 3).

Kopitar’s worldview was formed under the influence of Central Europe’s moderate Enlightenment, which the reigns of Emperor Joseph II and Leopold II encouraged, rather than under the influence of the French radical Enlightenment. All his life, Kopitar was an Austrian patriot. In the Pre-March period, he supported the main principles of Metternich’s foreign and domestic policies. His religious convictions were close to Josephinism and reformatory Catholicism. As a rationalist, he rejected the pomp of traditional Baroque devotions, which his forerunner and the initiator of the Slovene revival, Marko Pohlin, still supported. Viennese Romantic Catholicism, as represented by his good acquaintance, Friedrich von Schlegel, was equally alien to him. Johann Christoph von Adelung, Johann Gottfried Herder, August Ludwig von Schlözer, and Josef Dobrovský were key to determining Kopitar’s linguistic views. By elevating Slavic languages and literatures, these writers motivated Kopitar, under Zois’s influence, to develop Slovene and Slavic identities and an associated sense of mission. However, Kopitar was not only a man of the eighteenth century. His character was in part shaped by Romantic individualism, and he harnessed his work to the Romantic mission of cultural nationalism. Kopitar’s transitional place between the Enlightenment and Romanticism was a significant source of conflict with the older Enlightenment generation (e.g., Dobrovský) and the younger Romantics (e.g., František Palacký).2

Kopitar’s character was notoriously difficult. All who knew him marveled at his immense knowledge (Jacob Grimm called him a monstrum scientiarum), exceptional intelligence, and sparkling wit. In private, he was often insecure, though he appeared outwardly decisive, proud, and determined. He was very temperamental and forthright: intolerant and even arrogant towards (in his opinion) less capable Slavists (e.g., Valentin Vodnik) or his opponents (e.g., France Prešeren), ← 11 | 12 → yet magnanimous and gracious to his friends (e.g., Vuk Stefanović Karadžić), intelligent and educated people in general (e.g., Wilhelm von Humboldt), and people in trouble (e.g., Janez Anton Zupančič). As a censor, he sometimes made biased decisions due to his passionate character. For the same reason, he was at times incapable of understanding an opponent or admitting defeat. Despite these failings, he was unsurpassed as an energetic advocate and collaborator, prolific writer on current topics (for newspapers and reviews such as Annalen, Archiv, Österreichischer Beobachter, Vaterländische Blätter, Wiener Allgemeine Literaturzeitung, Wiener Jahrbücher), and a tireless correspondent. These varied and divergent activities prevented Kopitar from writing and publishing much needed syntheses. This explains, for example, why he published the Freising Manuscripts with great delay.3

Kopitar had a large impact on the entire Slavic world (cf. Petrovskij 1906: 265−267). Following Schlözer and Herder’s path, he emphasized the importance and uniqueness of the Slavic nations in the introduction to his grammar of Slovene, urging their unification with Pan-Slavic enthusiasm. With this aim in mind, he proposed a common Slavic Latin alphabet and a common Slavic literary language (Lenček 1996a; Lenček 1996c; Toporišič 1996). The publication of the grammar of Slovene firmly established him in Slavic circles. He regularly published articles in Viennese newspapers and reviews, acquainting the Central European intellectual public with the Slavic nations and drawing attention to the Slavic renaissance. Two examples were “Adresse der künftigen slavischen Akademie” and “Patriotische Phantasien eines Slaven” in the Vaterländische Blätter in 1810. At the same time, in his letter writing, he began purposefully to connect Slavic centers in the Austrian Empire and in neighboring countries—especially Ljubljana, Prague, Zagreb, Dubrovnik, and Karlovci. His correspondence facilitated the efficient exchange of books and ideas, and furthered the development of individual cultural nationalisms (Merchiers 2007; Vidmar 2010).

Nonetheless, Kopitar’s relations with other representatives of Slavic nations were often complicated, sometimes cordial, sometimes strained. But Kopitar warmly received and helped all the Slavists who came to him for advice. Visitors, including Russians and Czechs who had been reserved or even apprehensive in advance of a meeting, valued his genuine hospitality and cosmopolitan camaraderie in his favorite Viennese tavern, “Zum weissen Wolf.” Kopitar gathered there not only with Slavic and German scholars and writers, but also with Greek, Romanian, Albanian, ← 12 | 13 → and Serbian traders (Pogačnik 1977: 28−29; Hafner 1995). Until the last quarter of the twentieth century, Slovene, Czech, and Russian Slavists and historians in particular very frequently underestimated Kopitar’s person and work. They even unjustifiably described him as an egotistical, reactionary, and Jesuitical servant of Metternich’s regime and the papacy. On the contrary, his contemporaries Leopold von Ranke and Jacob Grimm justifiably saw him as the leading Slavist of the time and the best philologist in the Austrian Empire (Miller 2008: 291−292).


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2016 (February)
national revival Enlightenment Slavs cultural nationalism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 248 pp., 24 b/w fig.

Biographical notes

Luka Vidmar (Author)

Luka Vidmar is Research Fellow with the Institute of Slovene Literature and Literary Studies at the Research Centre of the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts. He studies literature, art, and culture in Slovenia and neighboring countries in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.


Title: A Slavic Republic of Letters
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