As previously announced on this site, the volume by C. Cecalupo “Giovanni Francesco Abela. Work, private collection and birth of Christian Archaeology in Malta” is now available. The book brings together years of study on the figure of Abela and his role in the discovery of Christian antiquities and archaeological collecting in Malta.
Despite the period of uncertainty due to the pandemic, there will still be a book launch! The event is organised by the Italian Cultural Institute – Valletta, in collaboration with the Malta Historical Society, Department of Library Information and Archive Sciences of the University of Malta, and under the patronage of the Italian Embassy in Malta. The meeting will be held on 8 April 2021 at 6pm and will be visible live on the youtube channel of the Istituto Italiano di Cultura – Valletta!
We are really looking forward to seeing you there!
As is often mentioned on this site, the importance of visual sources (signatures, drawings, maps, watercolour copies of ancient paintings) in the history of the discovery of Christian catacombs is incredible. These sources assume greater weight especially for the initial centuries in the history of Christian archaeology, before the advent of photography.
Among the most famous scholars who proceeded massively to copy the paintings of the catacombs they saw in their explorations is the Andalusian Alonso Chacón (1540-1599).
Chacòn can certainly be considered an important ‘chronicler’ of the state of catacomb paintings in the period in which the scholar lived in Rome (1567-1599).This rich heritage of early Christian iconography can be found in the manuscripts of the Vatican Library Vat. lat. 5409. This work, which has never been published, contains precious drawings of catacomb paintings commissioned by the Dominican to several artists and referable to the pictorial apparatuses of the cemetery of via Anapo and the catacombs of Priscilla, Domitilla and the complexes of the via Appia.
From an artistic point of view, the watercolour copies of the paintings commissioned by Chacón do not reflect the original style of the paintings, as they are totally executed in a strongly Baroque style. Even the scenes are sometimes misrepresented. In spite of these objective limitations, Chacón’s drawings remain a fundamental archaeological testimony (also for their descriptions and captions), as well as an absolutely enjoyable artistic work.
The Vat. lat 5409 manuscript is fully available in digital format on the Vatican Library website, on this page, which we highlight because of the usefulness of having such sources available digitally worldwide.
Among the many personalities involved in the study of the Roman catacombs in the first half of the 17th century, Giovanni Severano (priest of the Oratory of San Filippo Neri) is one of the best known but at the same time least understood.
Recently, some studies have been carried out to re-evaluate his figure. Over the centuries he has in fact been considered only as the editor who completed Antonio Bosio’s Roma Sotterranea, left unfinished at the author’s death in 1629 and published by father Severano only in 1634. Extensive studies have shown that, in the process of completing Roma Sotterranea, he personally explored many areas of the Roman catacombs to confirm and expand Bosio’s descriptions. For example, there is ample evidence of his explorations of the catacomb of Saints Marcellinus and Peter on the Via Labicana. Here, he explored many areas that had not been recorded by Bosio.
Some traces of his explorations and, in particular, some drawings of Christian antiquities commissioned by Severan can be seen here.
The most up-to-date biography of Giovanni Severano can be found here.
When recounting the history of the first explorers of the Roman catacombs at the end of the 16th century, the first names that come to mind are those of the great scholars whose discoveries initiated the exploration of Christian antiquities in the first place, for example Alonso Chacòn, Philip van Winghe and, above all, Antonio Bosio, the founder of Christian archaeology and discoverer of the majority of Roman Christian cemeteries. One can assume that in addition to the famous figures, there were others who moved in the same historical-social environment. About these men little is known and many of them have been almost completely forgotten.
There are some sources that provide us with information about these unknown explorers. We have, for example, literary and archival sources, in particular great works such as Antonio Bosio’s Roma Sotterranea, that inform us about the explorations of people about whom we know nothing else.
Primary and direct sources, however, are the signatures left by these explorers on the walls of the catacomb galleries.
A special personality in this is Giovanni Andrea Rossi, described by Bosio as his colleague in the underground researches.
Brother of the very well-known scholar Giano Nicio Eritreo, Giovanni Andrea was born in Rome around 1578. He was a friend of Antonio Bosio and often accompanied him on his catacomb explorations. However, we know with certainty that Giovanni Andrea also explored the catacombs of Rome on his own.
There are valuable proofs of his catacomb visits, and probably many others are to be discovered. These are the signatures (with the latinised version of his name Io. Andreas Rubeus) he left on the walls of the galleries of Priscilla and Domitilla Catacombs.
Many of these signatures bear the date 1596, written directly by Giovanni Andrea under his own name. This allows us to date his explorations precisely to a fairly early period. Moreover, some of his signatures are found in areas that were probably not known nor explored by Bosio (such as the cubicle of Lazarus in the catacomb of Priscilla).
This shows us how independent Giovanni Andrea was in his explorations. And without these signatures, we would know almost nothing about him and his activities.
The rediscovery of Christian catacombs in the Mediterranean can also be a visual story. It is not always possible to find maps and plans of Christian cemeteries, especially dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries: this means that existing plans assume great importance for us. In this small post we propose three plans (from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries) of one of Malta’s main catacombs, the cemetery of Abbatja tad-Dejr.
The catacomb of Abbatja tad-Dejr is a famous and unfortunate Christian cemetery located in the suburbs of Rabat. It consisted of several hypogea, and was revitalised in the Middle Ages by the establishment of a cult centre used for a long time, at least until late 16th century.
Today, the site is rarely accessible and is only partially preserved. However, visitors can see there important expressions of Maltese catacomb art: monumental baldacchino-tombs, carved and painted arcosolia and ceilings decorated with geometric themes.
The plan of this cemetery is the first to be drawn in the history of Maltese Christian archaeology. It appears in fact, very schematically, in the masterpiece of Giovanni Francesco Abela, the first explorer of the Maltese catacombs, the Della descrittione di Malta isola nel mare Siciliano (Malta 1647), on page 48.
Both the plan published by Abela became the most famous visual description of Christian sites of Malta in Europe. A reproduction of that image can also be found in Marcantonio Boldetti’s Osservazioni sopra i cimiteri de’santi martiri ed antichi christiani di Roma (Rome 1720, page 633), that is the main work on Mediterranean Christian cemeteries of the 17th century.
Antonio Annetto Caruana’s more extensive investigations at the end of the 19th century allowed this important Maltese author to offer a beautiful monochrome watercolour plan, of both archaeological and artistic value.
And today? Today the cemetery is largely unchanged, as can be seen in the 1986 plan published in Mario Buhagiar, Late Roman and Byzantine catacombs and related burial places in the Maltese islands (Oxford 1986, page 203).
What the visitor can walk through today is, therefore, the same site seen in the early 17th century by Abela.
This book is one of the latest outcomes of our research project. This book offers a new vision of the role played by Giovanni Francesco Abela, the father of Maltese historiography, in the rediscovery of Christian antiquities in Malta and in the development of private antiquarian collection in early-Baroque times. It also contributes to the definition of his international figure as European scholar, deals with the museological content of his masterpiece Della Descrittione di Malta, and offers the transcription of many archival texts about Abela’s life and work.
In the following articles we will address some of the topics discussed in this book, stay tuned! In the meantime, here you are the table of contents!
Chiara Cecalupo, Giovanni Francesco Abela. Work, private collection and birth of Christian archaeology in Malta. Rome: Edizioni Quasar, 2020
After many years of archaeological, historical and archival research on the rediscovery of catacombs in the central Mediterranean, this site was created by the authors to offer a virtual and international space for the dissemination of ideas and results on this topic.
We want to make available to as many people as possible the interdisciplinary results of the Koinè Mediterranea project, the studies of individual members and many other news and resources on the subject.
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