23 February 2018

Giovanni Battista de Rossi - archaeologist

Excavations unearthed massive Catacomb of St Callixtus

Grave niches were carved out of the rock in the  passageways of the Roman catacombs
Grave niches were carved out of the rock in the
passageways of the Roman catacombs
Giovanni Battista de Rossi, the archaeologist who revealed the whereabouts of lost Christian catacombs beneath Rome, was born on this day in 1822 in the Italian capital.

De Rossi’s most famous discovery – or rediscovery, to be accurate – of the Catacomb of St Callixtus, thought to have been created in the 2nd century by the future Pope Callixtus I, at that time a deacon of Rome, under the direction of Pope Zephyrinus, established him as the greatest archaeologist of the 19th century.

The vast underground cemetery, located beneath the Appian Way about 7km (4.3 miles) south of the centre of Rome, is estimated to have covered an area of 15 hectares on five levels, with around 20km (12.5 miles) of passageways.

It may have contained up to half a million corpses, including those of 16 popes and 50 Christian martyrs, from Pope Anicetus, who died in 166, to Damasus I, who was pontiff until 384. Nine of the popes were buried in a papal crypt.

The archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi
The archaeologist Giovanni Battista de Rossi
The complex steadily fell into disuse thereafter and the most important relics were removed over the centuries and relocated to churches around Rome.  The last wave of removals took place in the 9th century, after which the entrances became overgrown, and new buildings were constructed or land cultivated on the site. 

De Rossi, however, whose fascination with Rome’s underground history had begun when he was a boy, felt their whereabouts needed to be known.

He devoted his life to expanding his knowledge, assembling a network of friends and contacts among archaeologists and museum curators across Europe to collate everything that was known from ancient discoveries and ultimately identified the probable location of several catacombs.

In 1849, he was given permission to tramp round a vineyard off the Appian Way, where he found a broken marble slab bearing an incomplete inscription “NELIUS. MARTYR”. Aware from his research that Pope St. Cornelius had been buried in the area he asked the incumbent pope, Pius IX, to buy the vineyard so that he could begin an excavation.

It was not long before he found the other half of Pope St Cornelius’s marble tombstone and through a painstaking process over the next few years De Rossi gradually revealed the wealth of history he had known for so long was waiting to be found.

The entrance to the Catacomb of St Callixtus as it is today
The entrance to the Catacomb of St Callixtus as it is today
De Rossi had been born in the Campo Marzio area of the 4th Rione and was baptized at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Academically gifted, he attended the Collegio Romano, the Jesuit college in Rome, where he studied philosophy, before graduating in law from the Sapienza University of Rome.

His interest in Roman history, and in particular of what lay beneath the ground, had been piqued at an early age, his father giving him a copy of Antonio Bosio’s vast history, La Roma Sotterranea - Underground Rome -  for his 11th birthday. As a teenager, he befriended Giuseppe Marchi, the city’s Superintendent of Sacred Relics and Cemeteries.

Marchi, who showed him inside one of the catacombs – of which there are thought to have been at least 40 around the city – taught De Rossi the value of studying archaeological finds in situ rather than removing them, so as not to lose sight of their context.

In his career, De Rossi also explored the catacombs of Praetextus, Thrason and Priscilla.

A plate from De Rossi's book shows a reconstruction of the Crypt of the Popes
A plate from De Rossi's book shows a
reconstruction of the Crypt of the Popes
De Rossi’s travels around Europe were made easier by managing to secure for himself an important although not particularly time-consuming position as Scriptor of the Vatican Library upon completing his degree studies, an appointment that required him to catalogue manuscripts in the library but allowed him plenty of opportunities to continue his private study.

Among his other discoveries was the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest surviving manuscript of the complete Bible in the Latin Vulgate version. He also made a substantial contribution to the literature of archaeological study.

He produced a four-volume work, of which the final manuscript was completed just before he died, entitled La Roma Sotterranea Cristiana, which was an updated Christian version of Bosio’s masterpiece that he had found so inspiring as a boy, and left details of much of his work to posterity in the regularly updated Bulletino di archeologia cristiana.

De Rossi died in 1894 at Castel Gandolfo, one of the Castelli Romani in the Alban Hills south of Rome, and where a summer residence allowed the popes to escape the city during the oppressively hot months of July and August.

Richard Meier's Museum of the Ara Pacis
Richard Meier's Museum of the Ara Pacis
Travel tip:

The Campo Marzio area of Rome, where De Rossi grew up, is a small section of the 4th Rione of the city, extending roughly from the Palazzo del Quirinale to the Piazza del Popolo, and bordering the Tiber river.  Among other buildings, it is the home of something rare in the historic centre of the city – a modern edifice. The Museum of the Ara Pacis was built in glass, travertine and steel to house the 1st century Ara Pacis of Augustus, a Roman altar dedicated to Pax, the goddess of peace, that was discovered under 13 metres of silt before being result in its present location in 1938.  The museum, which replaced a structure built to protect the arch in the Fascist era, was designed by the American architect Richard Meier.

Castel Gandolfo sits atop a hill overlooking Lago Albano
Castel Gandolfo sits atop a hill overlooking Lago Albano
Travel tip:

Castel Gandolfo, which overlooks Lago Albano from its wonderful position in the hills south of Rome, is one of the towns within the regional park of the Castelli Romani. It owes its fame to being the home of an Apostolic Palace, built in the 17th century by Carlo Maderno on behalf of Urban VIII, that was traditionally the incumbent pope’s summer residence, with commanding views over the lake. The palace ceased to be a papal residence in 2016 at the behest of Pope Francis, and visitors can now go inside and enjoy a guided tour of the papal apartments and grand reception rooms.

Hotels in Castel Gandolfo from Booking.com

More reading:

Giuseppe Fiorelli - the archaeologist who saved Pompeii

Edward Gibbon's moment of inspiration

The Vesuvius eruption of AD79

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