The Rev Antonio Ferrua

Scholar of early Christianity
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The Independent Online

Antonio Ferrua, priest and archeologist: born Trinità, Italy 1901; ordained priest 1930; died Rome 25 May 2003.

As one of the foremost authorities on the life and culture of the early Christians of Rome and Italy, Antonio Ferrua was a member of the small group of Catholic scholars which supervised discreet excavations which took place between 1940 and 1949 beneath the high altar of Saint Peter's basilica in Rome following the discovery of ancient human remains and structures during work to enlarge the Vatican grottoes.

The team produced an extensive study of their findings (Esplorazioni sotto la Confessione di San Pietro in Vaticano Eseguite negli Anni 1940-1949, 1951) and deployed their considerable expertise in examining the evidence for the ancient veneration of St Peter at the site but provided no conclusive case for the identification of the remains.

Commentators from academic and religious backgrounds, provoked in part by the apparent secrecy of the investigations, promptly challenged both the methods and findings of the excavators. In particular, Professor Margherita Guarducci, herself a distinguished epigraphist, argued over two decades that significant evidence had been overlooked by the excavators, evidence that suggested that the tomb and remains of St Peter had indeed been found. It was alleged that seemingly relevant material had been published too slowly.

Throughout the long controversy, however, Ferrua refrained from what he thought of as sensational speculation and confined himself to what was scientifically proveable. To the end of his life he remained unconvinced that the remains honoured today as those of St Peter were actually those of the Apostle.

Born in Trinità in Piedmont in 1901, Ferrua entered the Jesuit novitiate at 18 and was ordained a priest in 1930. A gifted student of classical philology, he studied under the distinguished ancient historian Gaetano de Sanctis and was much influenced by the outstanding Latinist Augusto Rastagni, under whose guidance he carried out research on the curious inscribed carmina erected by Pope Damasus (366-384) at the tombs of the most prominent martyrs of the church of Rome.

The subsequently published study Epigrammata Damasiana (1942) established Ferrua as a major figure in the field of Christian epigraphy. Following his profession as a Jesuit, he joined the staff of the Gregorian University, before moving to the Pontifical Institute for Archaeology

His work on the Vatican excavations in the 1940s did not deter him from accepting a host of other responsibilities. Pius XII appointed him superintendent of the restoration of the ancient church of San Lorenzo in Verano which had been badly damaged by Allied bombing in July 1943. In 1947 he became Secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Archaeology and in 1948 was appointed Conservator of the Museo Sacro in the Vatican Library.

His devotion to epigraphy remained undiminished throughout and he presided over commissions devoted to collecting, editing and discussing the widely scattered and frequently fragmentary traces of Christian inscriptions. Building upon the work of his distinguished predecessor Giovanni Battista de Rossi, he oversaw the completion in nine volumes of Inscriptiones Christianae Urbis Romae Saeculo Septimo Antiquiores, a collection which sifted over 40,000 ancient inscriptions, many of which shed new light on the language, onomastics and topography of the early Christian church.

He was fascinated by the catacombs of Rome, publishing major studies of a little-known catacomb on the Via Latina (in 1960 and 1990) as well as the remains underlying San Sebastiano (1968). He was honoured with membership of the Pontificia Accademia Romana di Archeologia, the Società Romana di Storia Patria and the German Archaeological Institute in Rome. In 1973 he became Rector of the Pontifical Institute for Archaeology. The author of over 400 scholarly articles on divers subjects as well as countless academic reviews, he also contributed articles on Christian archaeology and epigraphy to the Enciclopedia Cattolica.

John Curran