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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > D > Giovanni Battista de Rossi

Giovanni Battista de Rossi

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A distinguished Christian archaeologist, best known for his work in connection with the Roman catacombs, born at Rome, 23 February, 1822; died at Castel Gandolfo on Lake Albano, 20 September, 1894. De Rossi, the modern founder of the science of Christian archaeology, was well-skilled in secular archaeology, a master of epigraphy, an authority on the ancient and medieval topography of Rome, an excellent historian, and a very productive and many-sided author. In addition to his professional acquaintance with archaeology De Rossi had a thorough knowledge of law, philology, and theology. He was the son of Commendatore Camillo Luigi De Rossi and Marianna Marchesa Bruti, his wife, who had two sons, Giovanni and Michele Stefano. Two days after birth Giovanni was baptized in the parish church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva and, according to Roman custom was confirmed while still very young, by Cardinal Franzoni, Prefect of the Propaganda. Up to 1838 De Rossi attended the preparatory department of the well-known Jesuit institution, the Collegio Romano, and through his entire course ranked as its foremost pupil. From 1838 to 1840 he studied philosophy there, and jurisprudence (1840-44) at the Roman University (Sapienza), where he was a disciple of the celebrated professors Villani and Capalti. At the close of his university studies he received, after a severe examination, the degree of doctor utriusque juris ad honorem.

De Rossi showed so strong an interest in Christian antiquity that on his eleventh birthday his father wished to give him the great work of Antonio Bosio, "La Roma Sotterranea". In 1843, before he received the doctor's degree, he matured a plan for a systematic and critical collection of all Christian inscriptions. In 1841, notwithstanding the protests of his anxious father, he visited, for the first time, under the guidance of the Jesuit Father Marchi, one of the then much neglected catacombs. After this De Rossi and Marchi pursued their archaeological studies together, so that they were known as the inseparable friends", though the difference in years was great. As soon as he had finished his studies De Rossi was appointed scriptor at the Vatican Library and bore this modest but honourable title, in which he took especial pride, all his life. Great credit is due him for his careful cataloguing of hundreds of Vatican manuscripts. The free use of the treasures of the Vatican Library and archives was a rich source of development for his intellectual powers, especially in the sense of breadth and catholicity of interest. His official duties were not heavy, and he was able to carry on his private studies without hindrance. In 1838, in company with his parents, he went on his first journey and visited Tuscany, where the innumerable treasures of art completely absorbed his attention. During the summers of 1844-50 he visited the territory of the ancient Hernici in Latium and also Naples; in this way the knowledge he attained of the period of the Roman Republic was not purely theoretical. In 1853 he travelled for the first time by himself and went again to Tuscany, also to the Romagna, Lombardy, and Venice. In 1856 he visited Liguria, Piedmont, Switzerland, France, and Belgium; in 1858 he went again to Piedmont, visited the western part of Switzerland, and the district of the Rhine as far as Cologne; from Cologne he went by way of Aachen, Trier, and Frankfort to Bavaria and Austria, and back to Rome by way of Venice and the Romagna. On a second trip to France in 1862 he visited the northern part of that country, and after going for a short time to London returned by way of Paris and Switzerland to Rome. In 1864 he went to Naples for a second time, and in 1865 was in France for the third time, visiting particularly the southern French cities. In 1868 he was again in France, and in 1869 and 1870 he went to Tuscany and Umbria; in 1872-75 he explored the vicinity of Rome; in 1876 and 1879 he investigated the treasures of Naples and the surrounding country, and in 1878 he made a trip again to Venice and Lombardy.

These journeys of De Rossi are of much importance for the proper appreciation of his scientific labours. Such long and fatiguing expeditions were undertaken solely in order to inspect museums, libraries, galleries, archives, and other institutions of learning and art, to form personal relations with the scholars of the countries visited, and to increase the range of his mental outlook, always fixed on a subject as a whole. De Rossi's extraordinary knowledge of the most obscure monuments of the civilized countries of Europe, and his thorough familiarity with manuscript sources, made it possible for him, as undisputed leader and master, to guide the science of Christian archaeology, during several decades, into new paths. These journeys help to explain De Rossi's remarkable literary productiveness, when considered in connection with his minute investigation of all the monuments, both on the surface and underground, of the city of Rome and the Roman Campagna. These investigations covered the ancient pagan life of Rome, the early Christian period, also the Middle Ages.

De Rossi's personal relations with the leading scholars of Italy and other countries began in his early youth. When he was fourteen the famous Cardinal Mai, Librarian of the Holy Roman Church, found him copying Greek inscriptions in the inscription gallery of the Vatican and became greatly interested in the lad; the acquaintance later ripened into a warm friendship. In 1847 began his connection as a scholar with the famous epigraphist Bartolommeo Borghesi of San Marino; at a later date Borghesi's works were issued at the expense of Napoleon III under De Rossi's direction. A few years after forming the acquaintance of Borghesi a correspondence was begun between De Rossi and the Benedictine Dom Pitra, of Solesmes, later Cardinal, and Librarian the Holy Roman Church, which ended in a warm friendship with Pitra. This, however, led to an estrangement between Leo XIII and De Rossi. Father Bruzza, the learned Barnabite, was also an intimate friend of De Rossi. Wilhelm Henzen, long director of the German archaeological institute at Rome, lived in friendship and daily communication with De Rossi for forty years. When the Berlin Academy of Sciences, urged by Theodor Mommsen, undertook its monumental publication, the "Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum", it sent a flattering letter to De Rossi to request his co-operation. This led to an intimate friendship with Mommsen. The latter's numerous collaborators on the "Corpus", among them Edwin Bormann, the noted authority of epigraphy, found De Rossi ever ready to assist and guide them. Martigny, the editor of the Bullettino (see below), as well as Paul Allard, editor of the French edition of "Roma Sotterranea", and Desbassyns de Richemont, were all closely united to De Rossi by the interests of their common work. To these must be added Louis Duchesne, the brilliant director of the Ecole de Rome, and collaborator with De Rossi on the recent edition (1894) of the "Martyrologium Hieronymianum". Léopold Delisle, the celebrated savant, palaeographer, and historian, for many years the head of the Bibliothèque Nationale at Paris, was a man of the same learned tastes as De Rossi; their meeting led to a very active scientific correspondence, and later to a strong attachment, based on their scholarly interests. When, about 1850, Edouard Le Blant formed the acquaintance of De Rossi, he was totally ignorant of archaeology, but an accidental remark of De Rossi led him to take up this science; eventually he became a distinguished archaeologist and the director of the Ecole de Rome.

Among German Catholics De Rossi's closest friendship as a scholar was with Franz Xaver Kraus. The cool reception he had from Döllinger, whom he once met at Munich, prevented the forming of any lasting relations. From 1884 Joseph Wilpert came into closer relations with De Rossi, who, up to his death, gave this scholar all the possible aid and showed the younger man the greatest friendship. The same may be said of Johann Peter Kirsch, archaeologist, patrologist, and historian. De Rossi also encouraged the labours of Anton de Waal, the founder and editor of the "Römische Quartalschrift", and was a helpful friend to numerous other German scholars. For many years De Rossi's relations were especially intimate with Giuseppe Gatti, his assistant in various kinds of learned work. Gatti's fine scholarship enabled De Rossi to carry on daily confidential discussions of learned questions which, after the death of Henzen, had apparently come to an end. Gatti continues De Rossi's labours in the province of ancient inscriptions. Henry Stevenson, who died too soon, Mariano Armellini, an enthusiast in archeology, Luigi Scagliosi, the numismatist, Orazio Marucchi, a popularizer of Christian archeology, Cosimo Stornaiolo, the "Grecian", besides many other Italians, among whom Gennaro Aspreno Galante of Naples deserves to be named, found in De Rossi a fatherly friend and counsellor. Among his English disciples and friends were especially J. Spencer Northcote and W. R. Brownlow who made known to the English-speaking world the results of De Rossi's scholarly investigations and publications. For years Northcote and Brownlow, and Lewis at Oxford, were in constant correspondence with De Rossi.

Stress is thus laid on the important personal acquaintance and friendships of De Rossi, in order to emphasize with what skill he stimulated interest in Christian archeology in all directions. Equally important, perhaps, were the relations established by him in the years 1850-70 during which he conducted many strangers, often of high rank, through the catacombs, or acted as their guide among the monumental ruins of Rome. The friendships thus made often secured for him the loan of monuments and documents which otherwise would never have been sent, even temporarily to a foreign country, but which were brought to him at Rome by the diplomatic couriers of all countries, not excepting Russia, using his opportunity to examine these objects at his leisure. The immediate superiors of De Rossi in the Vatican Archives treated him always as a friend and an equal, and allowed him entire freedom in all his studies. Pius IX honoured him with a fatherly affection, striking evidence of which was given on more than one occasion. Though the science of Christian archaeology was rather foreign to the mental temper of Leo XIII that pope often showed that, on the proper occasion, he could do justice to De Rossi's great reputation. In Rome De Rossi was exceedingly popular; nearly all the educated citizens, as well as the foreign residents, knew and honoured him. Without some knowledge of these facts De Rossi's learned labours and extraordinary success would be only superficially understood.

By his peculiar training, therefore, De Rossi was well fitted to understand sympathetically the early Christian literature, as well the rise and development of the Roman State as shown in the monuments it has left. In regard to the Roman State, he never held the somewhat mechanical and no longer undisputed theory of Mommsen. He penetrated also with marvellous insight the growth of the primitive Christian hierarchy. Amid his books and papers De Rossi pondered over the ruins of the temples and palaces of antiquity; reviewed his own subterranean explorations; followed the early Christians in their thoughts, wishes, hopes, and ideals; contemplated the triumph of the Church, liberated by Constantine the Great and entering triumphantly the basilicas; and gathered from yellowed manuscripts the traditions that a learned multitude of pious and painstaking monks had written concerning the Christian past, and in addition the accounts they have left us of their own times. In this way De Rossi was soon universally acknowledged, even in his lifetime, as the prince of Christian archaeologists.

Owing to his extraordinary literary productivity, which was the natural result of the conditions outlined above, a distinction must be drawn between his minor and his greater works. The list of his minor writings (monographs) begins in 1849 with the memoir: "Inscrizione onoraria di Nicomaco Flaviano", which appeared in the Annali dell Instituto di corrispondenza archeologica (pp. 283-363). These archaeological and ecclesiastico-historical papers number 203, not including the so-called literary letters in which De Rossi answered the questions addressed him by various scholars. Most of these letters were given publicity in books or periodicals by those to whom they were sent. Nor does this total include an almost countless series of Latin inscriptions, expressions of literary homage, congratulatory epigrams, etc. Most of the monographs, often quite lengthy, appeared in "Bulletino dell Instituto di corrispondenza archeologica"; "Bullettino archeologico Napolitano"; "Revue archéologique"; "Bullettino della commissione archeologica communale di Roma"; "Bibliothèque de l'école des chartes"; "Ephemeris epigraphica"; "Studi e documenti di storia e diritto"; "Dissertazioni dell accademia romana pontificia di archeologia"; "Mélanges d'archéologie et d'histoire de l'école française de Rome"; "Römische Quartalschrift", and in other Italian and foreign periodicals and reviews. A few of these papers appeared as separate volumes or as learned tributes on anniversary occasions. They vary in length from one to one hundred and thirty-two printed pages.

The titles of his larger and monumental works are as follows:

The works briefly described above give some conception of the learned labours De Rossi carried on during his life. They are proofs of the genius with which he grasped a subject, of his extraordinary industry, his learned mastery of the most varied subjects, and the unwavering determination with which he unearthed obscure points; they also show the triumphs with which his toils were so richly crowned. The estimation in which his work was field is proved by the two international celebrations in 1882 and 1892 upon his sixtieth and seventieth birthdays.

De Rossi's father died in 1850, and his mother in 1861. In the latter year he married Costanza, daughter of Count Pietro Bruno di San Giorgio Tornafort of Piedmont, by whom he had two daughters; Marianna, the elder, died in 1864. The second, Natalia, born in 1866, married the Marchese Filippo Ferraioli. De Rossi's brother Michele Stefano was his zealous assistant in the exploration of the catacombs; the geological questions connected with these subterranean places of burial and all kindred subjects are treated by Michele in separate papers in "Roma Soterranea". He also prepared the very accurate plans of the catacombs.

De Rossi was a portly man of fine appearance, somewhat over the middle height. The full, well-proportioned face was surrounded by a grayish beard which left the chin free. The clear, calm eyes lost much of their strength, so that he could not always supervise properly the work of his painters and this explains the numerous inaccurate illustrations in his works which Wilpert has corrected. The smoothly brushed hair gave greater prominence to the high domed forehead. In walking De Rossi bent slightly forward, which mannerism gave to his gait an appearance of much deliberateness. On the street he was generally busy with a book or pamphlet. De Rossi heard Mass every day and went to Communion nearly every week. Generous, unobtrusive charity was a second nature with him. Every evening he gathered all the members of his household about him for the recitation of the rosary. Although he very often received tempting offers to desert the cause of the Holy See and join the party of United Italy, he rejected all such proposals, even when they came from the highest authorities. On this point he was absolutely immovable. A few months after the international celebration of his seventieth birthday in 1892, De Rossi had an attack of apoplexy from which he never entirely recovered. Unable after this to use his right hand he continued to write with the left for the "Bullettino" and in making the corrections to the "Martyrologium". But his days were numbered. In the summer of 1894 Leo XIII offered him the use of an apartment in the papal palace at Castel Gandolfo, where he peacefully passed away, a true son of the Church. He was buried in the Agro Verano (general cemetery) at Rome.

About this page

APA citation. Baumgarten, P.M. (1908). Giovanni Battista de Rossi. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Baumgarten, Paul Maria. "Giovanni Battista de Rossi." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 4. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1908. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Michael C. Tinkler.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. Remy Lafort, Censor. Imprimatur. +John M. Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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