Closer to Rome

The Dutch interest in the Christian catacombs 

Try to imagine an underground network of more than 3 ha, with a labyrinth of corridors that stretches over 4,5 kilometers long on three different levels. It is dark and quiet. The walls around you are mostly bare, with an occasional decorated niche. Carved out in these walls are rectangular spaces, multiple above one another, more than 20.000 in total. Now imagine each one of these spaces to be a burial room. Welcome to the ancient Christian catacombs of Rome, one of the most interesting and intriguing remains of early Christianity in Europe.

From Rome to Arnhem
For centuries the catacombs of Rome have sparked the imagination of people. This reached a new height in the sixteenth century when they were rediscovered after having been mostly forgotten during the Middle Ages. The first and most important book on the catacombs was written by Antionia Bosio: Roma Subterranea. Bosio’s book, published in 1634, immediately became popular, but alas for most people it was written in Italian. Paolo Aringhi therefore decided to translate the book into Latin, making it a lot easier to spread all over Europe. This strategy worked: the book made it as far as the small Dutch Republic, where it was reprinted in Arnhem by Johan Frederik Hagen.

Above the original translation into Latin by Paolo Aringhi, below the small copy made in the Dutch Republic. If you look closely, you will see 'Arnhemiae' (Arnhem) right under the publisher's mark.
It seems quite strange that such a book, written in Catholic powerhouse Rome, could be spread in the Dutch Republic. After all, the Republic during this period is known for its Protestant character, allowing only the Calvinist religion in public. However, the city of Arnhem was actually quite a logical location for the publication of Bosio's work. Arnhem was located near the borders of the Holy Roman Empire, close to a few Catholic principalities and far from the Protestant bastions of Holland and Zeeland.

Both the Latin originals by Aringhi and the reprint from Arnhem have been kept at the library of the KNIR. Comparing the two copies will show how the originals were altered to fit the interests of the Dutch public.

Publishing for the Dutch
The most visible of the alterations is the one in size. Whereas the Latin originals by Aringhi are almost as big as an adult’s upper body, the book from Arnhem is pocket size, not even 15 centimeters in height. This suggests that the purpose of this reproduction was not to have a book you could show off, or to put in your study. The purpose was probably more that of a guide book, something the reader could easily bring along when visiting Rome.

This purpose becomes even more evident when one looks at the contents of the book. The printer has been quite selective in which parts he did and did not take over from the Latin version. This is not unusual: in early modern Europe, copyright as we know it did not exist. This meant that each writer or book printer was free to take over whole texts, parts of texts, or as in this case, the title with only parts of the original text. Johan Hagen therefore decided to take only the parts he considered interesting to his audience.

This means that instead of the six books of the original, the Dutch copy only has three. Hagen decided to leave out the first, fifth and sixth book. These books are all concentrated on what we can call background information, such as burial rituals, different types of martyrs and iconography. The parts he kept, books two, three and four, all contain locations and descriptions of many different catacombs. In most cases there is also a short summary of the stories of the martyrs buried in these catacombs. Striking is that Hagen left out the first four chapters of book two, thereby starting with the chapter on the martyrdom and burial of St. Peter, the first pope.

On top of that, Hagen also made some additions to his own reproduction that are not found in the original, such as an index of images, a catholic calendar and even a foldable map of the city, including large premises outside the city walls. Thus a traveler would not only be able to find his way inside the city, but he would also be able to find the catacombs, which are located outside the walls. When it comes to decoration, Hagen has been quite modest. Apart from the exquisite frontispiece he copied less than half of the original illustrations. This in combination with the small size of the copy from Arnhem suggests that Hagen aimed to keep the book at a relatively low price, making it also accessible for people with more moderate means.

Hagen's map of Rome unfolded. On the left you can still see part of Hagen's small copy. It rests upon the much larger original Latin copy by Aringhi.
It is evident that Hagen had a very clear purpose with reprinting the Roma Subterranea, which can be best explained by putting the book in a religious context. Bosio wrote his work in the period of the Counter-Reformation, a movement which aimed to reform the Catholic Church. This was both a reaction to the Protestant reformation as well as a reform movement from within the church. The ancient catacombs directly connected Rome, capital of the Catholics, to the first true Christians, such as the apostles Peter and Paul and the martyrs. Although it was not Bosio’s aim, the Roma Subterranea became a powerful tool during the period of Counter-Reformation. Hagen clearly exploited this, as did many others. He copied the title of the book, which had a certain authority, but changed the content. By doing so, he made a sort of a travel guide to the Roman catacombs. People who were interested could travel to Rome and use this book to see the foundations of ‘true Christianity’ in this city.

The Roma Subterranea clearly shows the seventeenth-century connections between Rome and the Dutch Republic. As is the case today, people were fascinated by these vast ancient burial places and wanted to learn more about them. For Catholics in the Dutch Republic they must have been extra special, because the existence of the catacombs confirmed the foundations of their beliefs. Although Rome and Arnhem were far apart, the people wanted to feel connected. By reprinting Roma Subterranea, Hagen brought Dutch Catholics closer to Rome. Lianne van Valen

The famous frontispiece of Roma Subterranea. It originates from Antonio Bosio's first work and has been copied in every version and translation since.
Paolo Aringhi [Roma Subterranea] Roma Subterranea Novissima in qua post Antonivm Bosivm antesignanvm, IO, Severanvm congreg. oratorii presbyter, et celebres alios scriptores antiqva christianorum et praecipue martyrvm coemeteria, titvli, monimenta, epitaphia, incriptiones, ac nobiliora sanctorvm sepvlchra sex libris distincta illustrantvr et qvuamplvrimae res ecclesiasticae iconibvs graphice describuntur, ac multiplici tum sacra, tum profana erudition declantur. Opera en studio Pauli Aringhi romani congreg. eiusdem presbyteri cum duplice Indice, Capitum & Rerum locupletissimo. (Romae M D C L I. Expensis Blasii Diuerini & Zanobii Masotti Bibliopolarum. Typis Vitalis Mascardi. Superiorum permissu)
2 volumes:
I: 2°, 17-626-29
II: 2°, 7-712-30
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, DRMR145-146

Paolo Aringhi [Roma Subterranea] Roma subterranea novissima, in qva antiqua christianorum et praecipue martyrum coemeteria, tituli, monimenta, epitaphia, inscriptions ac nobiliora sancrorum sepulchral, tridus libris distinct, Fideli Ennaratione partier ac Graphicis Iconibus, ceu gemina face illustrantur; Plurimaeque inde Res Ecclesiasticae declarantur; ex absolutissimo Opere Pauli Aringhi in hanc portatilem formam concinnata, cum Indice Capitum & Rerum exactissimo (Arnhemiae, apud Joan. Fridericum Hagium, Anno M DC LXXI)
8°, 22-630-29
Rome, Library Koninklijk Nederlands Instituut Rome, DR84

Fiocchi Nicolai, Vincenzo. The Christian Catacombs of Rome; History, Decoration, Inscriptions.
          Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner, 1999.
Rutgers, Leonard.V. ‘Cemeteries and Catacombs.’ The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Rome.
          Ed. P.P.M. Erdkamp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013. 497-521.
Blanchard, Philip. ‘A Mass Grave from the Catacomb of Saints Peter and Marcellinus in Rome,
          Second-Third century AD’ Antiquity 81 (2007): 989-998.
Rutgers Leonard.V. Subterranean Rome; in Search of the Roots of Christianity in the Catacombs of the
          Eternal City. Leuven: Peeters, 2000.

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