Antonio Bosio and the Rediscovery of the Roman Catacombs

Domitilla catacombs, explored by Antonio Bosio

Domitilla catacombs, explored by Antonio Bosio

 

On May 31, 1578, the Catacombs of Rome were discovered by accident. A sepulchral chamber was opened by some laborers digging for pozzolana earth. Ecclesiastical historian Caesar Baronius was one of the first to visit the new discovery. Fifteen years later, in December 1593, 18-yr-old Antonio Bosio began a lifetime exploring the catacombs researching them for his volume, Roma Sotterranea.

Antonio Bosio was born in Malta. As a young boy, he was sent to take care of his uncle, who was representative at the Holy See of the Knights of Malta. Bosio studied literature, philosophy, and jurisprudence, however, at the age of eighteen he gave up his legal studies, went to Rome and for the remainder of his life time was devoted to archaeological work in the Roman catacombs.

In 1578, the accidental discovery of an ancient subterranean cemetery on the Via Salaria had attracted general attention in Rome. However, only few even realized how important these findings were. With the exception of three foreign scholars, Alfonso Chacon, the antiquarian Philips van Winghe from Leuven and Jean L’Heureux, no one really thought of pursuing further investigations. It is believed that Antonio Bosio began the systematic exploration of subterranean Rome and thus became a precursor of the science of Christian archaeology, an inspiration to Giovanni Battista de Rossi.

The young explorer realized that early Christian literature such as acta of the martyrs and accounts of the councils would offer clues to the locations of the catacombs.  An idea of the vast scope of his reading is in two great folio volumes of his manuscript notes in the Vallicelliana library at Rome, each of which contains about a thousand pages.

During his studies, Bosio collected all the data possible relative to the location of a catacomb on one of the great Roman roads leading from Rome. He set out to the indicated places and covered the ground carefully in the hope of discovering a forgotten stairway offering access.

Antonio Bosio’s  Roma Sotterranea was edited by the Oratorian Severano, under the patronage of Cardinal Francesco Barberini. It is entirely devoted to the description of the cemeteries with the end of ascertaining all that was possible regarding the history of each cemetery, by what name it was known in antiquity, who its founders were, and what martyrs and illustrious Christians were interred there. Many of his conclusions have in modern times been found to be erroneous, but Bosio’s method is acknowledged to have been scientific within the shortcomings of the infant science of archaeology. The engravings that accompanied the volume are of little use to the modern archaeologist.

Unfortunately, after his work was published, the catacombs were scoured for anything that might prove of value on the market. Even though much information on the condition of the catacombs and their inscriptions and frescoes in the early 17th century was preserved in Bosio’s volume, a lot of information was lost through the publication. Some of the catacombs Bosio described have since been destroyed by subsequent construction.

 

At Yovisto, Diana E. E. Kleiner explores the civic, commercial, and religious buildings of Pompeii as part of her lecture on ‘Roman Architecture’. She is an art historian known worldwide for her expertise on the art and architecture of the ancient Romans.

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