The main focus of this post is on two excerpts from works by Rodolfo Lanciani, in which Lanciani discusses the discovery, starting in 1852, by Giovanni Battista de Rossi, of a number of inscriptions attributed to Pomponius Laetus (aka Pomponio Leto) and other members of the 15th century Roman Academy.
Lanciani was in no doubt as to the significance of these inscriptions:
"One line, one word alone, of the records which have been discovered by us four centuries later, made known in proper time to the court of Castle S. Angelo, would have brought their heads under the sword of the public executioner."But first I will provide a little background information on De Rossi and Lanciani.
The following is from the entry for Giovanni Battista de Rossi from the online Catholic Encyclopedia:
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.And this is from Rodolfo Lanciani's entry in the online Dictionary of Art Historians (Lee Sorensen, ed. www.dictionaryofarthistorians.org):
Date born: 1847Excerpt One: from Rodolfo Lanciani's Ancient Rome, Chapter One, pp. 8-12 (first published in 1890):
Place Born: Montecelio, Rome vicinity, Italy
Date died: 1929
Place died: Rome, Italy
Lanciani was a pioneer of a rational, modern approach to Roman cartography and archaeology. He formed part of a core of distinguished late nineteenth-century scholars of the Roman forum who included Thomas Ashby (q.v.), Heinrich Jordan (1833-1886), Christian Huelsen (q.v.), and Samuel B. Platner (1863-1921). In 1967, Richard Brilliant (q.v.) described Lanciani's Ruins and Excavations of Ancient Rome as undiminished in vitality as a study of ancient Roman ruins. His Forma Urbis Romae was "a magnificent map of the city and a marvellous example of cartography as well as an encyclopaedia of typographical information. It is still an essential tool for anyone working on the ancient city" (Richardson). City maps of the twenty-first century typically have a scale of 1:20,000 (five cm on the map equivalent to one km on the ground). The forty-six maps of the Forma Urbis have a scale of 1:1,000. The work is still unsurpassed to this day. Many of his English-language books on Rome were subsequently translated into Italian.
We must now pass to the time of the return of the popes from Avignon to Rome, which marks the beginning of the Renaissance, — the beginning, that is, of the most glorious period in the history of my own nation. At this period, mediaeval Italy had disappeared. A new element, the genius of the ancient world, had risen in its glory, and had fascinated the higher classes of society, the heads of the various states into which the Peninsula was politically divided, the aristocracy, the fashionable and literary circles, and, in a more modest measure, the members of the clergy and of monastic orders. That mighty genius took possession at once of the field of art and science, modified the manners and the education of the higher classes, and even shook, for the time being, the very foundations of the Christian faith. At the head of the movement marched a handful of scientific men, philologists rather than archaeologists, better known under the name of the Humanists. They became professors in the universities, they won confidential positions in princely houses as private secretaries, they attached themselves especially to the princes of the Church. Their engagements lasted only for a short period, sometimes for six months only: thus they were able to move without intermission from town to town, from court to court, from college to college, multiplying, as it were, from one end to the other of the Peninsula, and sowing everywhere the seed which was to bring forth such magnificent harvests.Excerpt Two: from Rodolfo Lanciani's Pagan and Christian Rome, Chapter Seven, pp. 358-361 (first published in 1896):
The study of the Greek language and literature was the most fashionable of all studies: hence the fifteenth century has been called the Golden Age of Hellenism. The beginning of the following century saw the first decline of this pursuit; under the Popes of the Medici family, Greek had already left public life, to confine itself again within the precincts of cloisters and schools, which became, and are now, I regret to say, its last insecure shelter. In order to obtain able masters from the East, especially from Byzantine schools, fabulous prices were offered and paid to those professors who were willing to change their country; but the capture of Constantinople, May 29, 1453, very soon dried up this rich source. These circumstances enable us to understand why, at the beginning of the fifteenth century, men of letters and women of the upper classes could easily converse in Greek; whereas, fifty years later, the same language was no longer spoken, but only read, and was totally forgotten at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
It is difficult to form an idea of such a powerful movement towards classical studies; more difficult to investigate its causes. We can explain something by a reference to Fashion, that despotic and capricious goddess; but this will not explain all. Captivated by hitherto unknown fascinations, eager to tear aside the veil which concealed its mysteries, the Humanists deified and idolized archaeology, and congregated around its temple to partake of the treasures of science which had been kept there in safe concealment since the fall of the Roman Commonwealth, more than nine centuries before. Many conceived the hope or labored under the illusion that pagan science would heal the wounds of society; some followed the movement out of pure love of fascinating enquiries, others from curiosity; the profanum vulgus felt the contagion of example and fashion; the higher classes hoped to find in ancient philosophy the consolations which, to their own misfortune, they had ceased to expect from faith.
Paganism not only penetrated the domain of science, but conquered also the field of fine arts, although this last was exclusively and absolutely consecrated to the service of the Church. The evidence of this fact is to be found everywhere in Italy, in churches as well as in public edifices of Rome, Florence, and Venice. Those genii who surround the Blessed Virgin, holding on high the torch of life; those winged classic youths who are meant to represent angels; those nymphs whose part it is to represent the holy women of Christendom, and whose immodest forms were not considered out of place in a church, — are all nothing but a revival of paganism and of pagan art. Every one knows that Daniele da Volterra was surnamed "il Braghettone," or breeches-maker, because he contrived to cover the most crude nudities of Michael Angelo's "Last Judgment," and that the reclining statue of Giulia Farnese, near S. Peter's chair in the Vatican, the masterpiece of Guglielmo della Porta, was clothed by Bernini with clothes of painted lead. Giorgio Vasari asserts that Perugino could never be induced to believe in the immortality of the soul, although he had devoted all his life to painting saints and madonnas.
I must quote here an incident from the life of the greatest Humanist of the fifteenth century, Pomponius Laetus, because, owing to a recent discovery made in the catacombs of S. Calixtus, on the Appian Way, we are able to solve for the first time a mystery connected with the pagan tendencies of the Renaissance. Pomponio Leto founded in Rome an academy for classic studies, to which the most celebrated literary men of the period belonged: Cardinal Platina, the historian of the Church; Giovanni Antonio Campano, Bishop of Teramo, Pietro Sabino, professor of epigraphy in the University of Rome; Marco Antonio Sabellico, Pietro Pallini, and many others.b All these illustrious members of the Roman Academy, either because they had exchanged their Christian names for names of pagan heroes, or else on account of their extravagant worship of ancient philosophy and civilization, were stigmatized by so‑called public opinion as apostates from the faith, as worshippers of false gods, as conspirators against the authority and the life of the Pope. Imprisoned and chained in the Castle of S. Angelo by order of Paul II, a religious and political action was brought against them upon the charge of conspiracy to secure the supreme pontificate of Rome for their master and president, Pomponio Leto. Cardinal Platina vindicated the innocence of his colleagues, and Pomponio himself addressed to the court of Castle S. Angelo a vigorous speech, the original of which is preserved in the Vatican archives. The lack of positive evidence and the intervention of influential friends caused them to be set free; so that the Academy was able to return to its work, amidst the applause and with the help of cardinals and prelates of the Roman Church.
It is, no doubt, exceedingly remarkable that the evidence against these men, sought in vain by Paul II and his judges, should have come to light only a few years ago, and in a place entirely unsuspected. In the course of the excavations carried on by my illustrious master, Commendatore G. B. de Rossi, in the catacombs of Callixtus, a cubiculum, or crypt, was discovered, May 12, 1852, in the remotest part of that subterranean labyrinth which had been used by Pomponio's brotherhood as a secret place of meeting. On the white plaster of the ceiling the following inscription had been written with the smoke of a tallow candle: "January 16, 1475. Pantagathus, Mammeius, Papyrius, Minicinus, Æmilius, Minucius, all of them admirers and investigators of antiquities, and the delight of the Roman dissolute women, [have met here] under the reign of Pomponius, supreme pontiff [pontifex maximus]." Many other records of the same nature have been since discovered in the catacombs of SS. Pietro e Marcellino and of Praetextatus, in which records Pantagathus (Cardinal Platina?) is styled sacerdos academiae Romanae, and Pomponius again sovereign pontiff.
It is evident that such a priesthood and such a pontificate have nothing to do with the Christian hierarchy; on the other hand, it is difficult to determine whether we have to deal with a more or less absurd pedantry, or with a solemn apostasy from the Christian faith by a handful of dissolute conspirators. One thing only is certain: that Pomponio and his colleagues were very wise in confiding their secret to the deepest and most impenetrable recesses of the Roman catacombs. One line, one word alone, of the records which have been discovered by us four centuries later, made known in proper time to the court of Castle S. Angelo, would have brought their heads under the sword of the public executioner.
The catacombs of SS. Peter and Marcellinus have another attraction for students. Poor as they are in epitaphs and works of art, they contain hundreds of names of celebrated humanists, archaeologists, and artists who explored these depths in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and made record of their visits. When one walks between two lines of graves, in the almost oppressive stillness of the cemetery, with no other company than one's thoughts, the names of Pomponius Letus and his academicians, of Bosio, Panvinio, Avanzini, Severano, Marangoni, Marchi, and d'Agincourt, written in bold letters, give the lonely wanderer the impression of meeting living and dear friends; and one wonders at the great love which these pioneers of "humanism" must have had for antiquities, to have spent days and days, and to have held their conferences and banquets, in places like these.
In chapter I, page 10, of "Ancient Rome," [see immediately preceding excerpt] I mentioned Pomponio's Academy, and its visits to the crypts of Callixtus. Since the publication of my book, and the subject has been investigated again and illustrated by Giacomo Lombroso and de Rossi. It appears that after the trial which the Academicians underwent at the time of Paul II., and their unexpected liberation from the Castle of S. Angelo, they decided to turn over a new leaf. From a fraternity which was pagan in manners and instincts, which had made itself conspicuous by the use of profane language, and by the celebration of profane meetings over the tombs of the martyrs, they became the "Societas litteratorum S. Victoris et sociorum in Esquiliis," a literary society under the patronage of S. Victor and his companion saints, namely, Fortunatus and Genesius. Their pontifex maximus became a president; their sacerdos a priest, whose duty it was to say mass on certain anniversaries. The most important celebration fell, as before, on April 21, the birthday of Rome. We have a description by an eye-witness, Jacopo Volaterrano, of that which took place in 1483: "On the Esquiline, near the house of Pomponius, the society of literary men has celebrated the birthday of Rome. Divine service was performed by Peter Demetrius of Lucca; Paul Marsus delivered the oration. The dinner was served in the hall adjoining the chapel of S. Salvatore de Cornutis," etc. In 1501, after the death of Pomponius, the anniversary meetings were held on the Capitol; the solemn mass was sung in the church of the Aracoeli, while the banquet took place in the Palazzo dei Conservatori. The convivial feast of 1501 was not a success. Burckhardt describes it as satis feriale et sine bono vino (commonplace and with no good wine).
Was the conversion of the Academicians a sincere one? We believe it was not; they manifested under Sixtus V. the same feelings which had brought them to justice under Paul II.
In the calendars of the Church of Rome only one name is registered on April 21, that of Pope Victor. His alleged companions, Fortunatus and Genesius, were singled out of old, disused calendars of the church of Africa, unknown to the Latins. Why did the academicians select such enigmatic and obscure protectors? The reason is evident. Genesius was chosen because his name suggested an allusion to the genesis (natalis) or birthday of Rome; Victor and Fortunatus, likewise, were considered names of good omen, with a suggestion of the Victory and Fortune who presided over the destinies of ancient Rome.
Under the protection of these alleged saints, Pomponius and his friends worshipped, and celebrated the birthday of Rome, and the goddesses connected with the city.
This state of things did not wholly escape the attention of contemporary observers. One of them, Raffaele Volaterrano, expressly says: "Pomponius Laetus worshipped Romulus and kept the birthday of Rome; the beginning of a campaign against religion (initium abolendae fidei)."
The Roman academy found the means of keeping faithful to its traditions, and to the spirit of its institutions, in spite of the reform of its statutes. Victor, Fortunatus, Genesius, in whose honor divine service was performed on April 20, did not represent to the initiated the saints of the Church, but the fortunes of ancient Rome, its founder, the Paliliae. Still, we are not yet able to discover whether all this was done simply out of love and admiration for the ancient world, under the influence of the Renaissance of classical studies; or from hatred and contempt of the Christian faith: initium abolendae fidei.