Catholic Encyclopedia – Venerable Cesare Baronius

[Venerable Cesare Baronio]Article

Cardinal and ecclesiastical historian, born at Sora in the Kingdom of Naples, 30 August 1538; died at Rome, 30 June 1607; author of “Annales Ecclesiatici”, a work which marked an epoch in historiography and merited for its author, after Eusebius, the title of a Father of Ecclesiastical History.

Baronius was descended from the Neapolitan branch of a once powerful family, whose name, de Barono, was changed by Cesare himself to the Roman form, Baronius. His parents, humble citizens of Sora in the Sabines, some sixty miles east of Rome, could bestow no ancestral wealth and power upon their only son. He was, however, to possess qualities which better proclaim nobility — a deeply religious spirit, a charity to which selfishness was painfully repgunant, a firmness of will tempered in humble obedience, and a keenness and vigour of mind scrupulously dedicated to the cause of truth. These qualities distinguished Baronius as a peer in sanctity and scholarship among many saintly and learned contemporaries. He inherited his more vigorous traits of character from his father Camillo, a worldly and ambitious man, whose strong will and tenacity of purpose were one day to clash with like qualities in his equally determined son. To the influence of his pious and charitable mother, Portia Phaebonia, whose devotion to Cesare’s religious interests was intensified by what she considered his miraculous deliverance from death in infancy, he owed his conspicuous tender qualities and childlike simplicity of faith. To this latter was due his vivid realization of God’s guidance, vouchsafed often in visions and dreams. Baronius received his early education from his intelligent parents and in the schools of nearby Veroli. His intense love of study and intellectual maturity encouraged his father to send him, at the age of eighteen, to the school of law at Naples. There, after a few months of confusion due to the Franco-Spanish war for Italian dominion compelled him to remove to Rome, where, in 1557, he became a pupil of Cesare Costa, a master in civil and canon law.

He was there but a short time when he met one who was potently to influence his destiny and determine, even to details, his career and occupations. It was Philip Neri, a priest remarkable for his sanctity and for the spirit of piety and charity with which he inspired a little group of priests and lay-men whom he had formed into a confraternity of good works at the church of San Girolamo della Carità. The importance of this meeting cannot be overestimated; a Baronius the world might have had, but the Baronius of history is the creature of Saint Philip Neri. He was impressed by the serious law student of such transparent innocence of life and finding in him a responsive subject, enrolled him in his little band. This did not prevent Baronius from continuing the studies for which he came to Rome, but in all else his surrender of self to Philip’s guidance was spontaneous and complete. It was not without its sacrifices. In token of renunciation he burned a volume of his own Italian verses in the composition of which he had shown marked proficiency; the same fate later befell his doctorate diploma. For three years, in his zeal, he yearned to become a Capuchin friar, but Philip restrained him. More distressing still was the bitter antagonism of his father, who saw in all this but folly and the frustration of his paternal ambition. He feared, too, the extinction of his family, whose hope for a brilliant revival was centred alone in Cesare. Father and son were firm. Camillo cut off his scanty allowance and Cesare was compelled to live on the hospitality of one of Philip’s friends. For six years Baronius led a semi-religious life with the community of San Girolamo, the nucleus of the Congregation of the Oratory. From Philip he received direction in study and spiritual guidance, and at his bidding gave all his spare time to charitable work among the sick and poor.

During the year 1558 Philip assigned to him the important work of preaching at the conferences given often during the week in the church of San Girolamo. In 1564 he received priestly ordination and resolved to cast his lot with Philip’s little band, but so intense was his ardor for the religious life that he had already taken vows of poverty, chastity, humility, and obedience to Philip as to a superior. Of his will he was to be the yielding instrument for yet twenty-five years. That time was to be given to the preparation of his work on ecclesiastical history, about which Baronius’ life-interest henceforth centres.

The credit of its conception belongs to Philip, as Baronius testifies with filial devotion in the “Annals”. The saint shared keenly in the distress and dismay caused in Catholic circles by the publication of the “Centuries of Magdeburg” (Ecclesiastica Historia: integram ecclesiae Christi ideam complectens, congesta per aliquot studiosos et pios viros in urbe Magdeburgica, 13 vols., Basle, 1559-74). The purpose of this work was to commit history to the cause of Protestantism by showing how far the Catholic Church had departed from primitive teaching and practices, in contrast to the consonance therewith of the Reformed Church. It was conceived in 1552 by Mathias Flach Francowiez (Flacius Illyricus) and, with the collaboration of several Lutheran scholars and the co-operation of evangelical princes and other wealthy Protestants, was hurriedly completed. Its thirteen volumes dealt each with a century of the Christian Era, whence the name “Centuriators” applied to the authors. Though the work had the great merit of being the pioneer in the field of modernized church history, and displayed considerable critical spirit, its unscrupulously partisan colouring of Lutheran claims and its misrepresentations of Catholicity predestined it to but ephemeral honour. It is of interest only as a sunken landmark in the field of historical literature, and as the stimulus of Baronius’s genius. The publication of its initial volumes, however, at a time when its polemical value made it acceptable to Protestants, provided the Reformers with a most formidable weapon of attack on the Catholic Church. It did much harm. The feasibility of a counter attack appealed to Catholic scholars, but nothing adequate was provided, for the science of history was still a thing of the future. Its founder was as yet but twenty-one years of age and knew very little of history. It was in that youth that Saint Philip Neri discerned a possible David who would rout the Philistines of Magdeburg. He forthwith directed Baronius to devoted his conferences at San Girolamo exclusively to the history of the Church. Baronius was disconcerted. History had no attraction for him. His youthful zeal would rather vent itself in the fiery moral conferences which he had creditably given during the preceding year. But he obeyed, and within three years summarily covered the field of church history in his conference and developed a keen interest in historical studies. Twice he gave the course before his ordination to the priesthood, and five times again did he repeat it during the following twenty-three years, perfecting his work with each succeeding series. The early historians and the Fathers became his familiars. The libraries of Rome yielded to his diligent quest a host of unpublished documents. Monuments, coins, and inscriptions told to him unsuspected stories.

What he did in and about Rome willing correspondents did for him elsewhere, and the name of Baronius came to be known over Europe as a synonym for unprecedented historical penetration, power of research, and zeal for verification. Philip’s plan for arranging in lasting form the material thus garnered must have been made known to Baronius before 1569, but despite the importance of the work, he was compelled by his master to share in all the exercises of the now growing Oratory. At the church of San Giovanni dei Fiorentini. which he served from 1564 to 1575, he had his part in the parish ministrations and took his turn in the menial domestic services. “Baronius coquus perpetuus” was the legend he playfully inscribed in the Oratory kitchen, where he often received distinguished visitors. To the many mortifications imposed by Philip he added generously, and thereby provoked the digestive disorders that often racked his body in life and ultimately precipitated his death. Despite all obstacles, his prodigious capacity for work and contentment with but four to five hours sleep a night made possible an amazing progress in his researches. After the canonical foundation of the Oratory (15 July, 1575) he took up his residence at Santa Maria in Vallicella, definitive home of the new congregation, and led the same busy life. In the early eighties plans were matured for the publication of the new church history, and by 1584, a quarter of a century since he began his preparation, Baronius had the work well under way, when his patience suffered a new trial. Gregory XIII confided to him the revision of the Roman Martyrology. The work was necessary because of confusion in feast-days due to the Gregorian calendar-reform (1582); besides, it was an opportune time to correct the many errors of copyists long accumulating in the Martyrology. Baronius gave two years to the wide research and keen criticism the work demanded. His annotations and corrections were published in 1586, and in a second edition he corrected several errors which he was chagrined to have overlooked in the first (Martyrologium Romanum, cum Notationibus Caesaris Baronii, Rome, 1589).

The difficulties which beset Baronius in the publication of the “Annals” were many and annoying. He prepared his manuscript unaided, writing every page with his own hand. His brother Oratorians at Rome could lend him no assistance. Those at Naples, who helped him in revising his copy, were scarcely competent and almost exasperating in their dilatoriness and uncritical judgment. The proofs he read himself. His printers, in the infancy of their art, were neither prompt nor painstaking. In the Spring of 1588 the first volume appeared and was universally acclaimed for its surprising wealth of information, its splendid erudition, and its timely vindication of papal claims. The “Centuries” were eclipsed. Those highest in ecclesiastical and civil authority complimented the author, but more gratifying still was the truly phenomenal sale the book secured and the immediate demand for its translation into the principal European languages. It was Baronius’ intention to produce a volume every year; but the second was not ready until early in 1590. The next four appeared yearly, the seventh late in 1596, the other five at still-longer intervals, up to 1607, when, just before his death, he completed the twelfth volume, which he had foreseen in a vision would be the term of his work. It brought the history down to 1198, the year of the accession of Innocent III.

Baronius’ student life during the twenty years of publication was even more disturbed than formerly. His growing repute brought heavy penalties to one of his humility. Three successive popes would have made him a bishop. In 1593 he became superior of the Oratory, succeeding the aged Philip, on whose death, in 1596, he was re-elected for another triennial term. In 1595 Clement VIII, whose confessor he was, made him protonotary Apostolic and, on 5 June, 1596, created him cardinal. Baronius bitterly regretted his removal from the Oratory to reside at the Vatican, or even away from Rome when the papal court was absent from the city, a circumstance doubly distressing as it prevented active work on the “Annals”. In 1597 Clement paid the highest possible tribute to his erudition by naming him Librarian of the Vatican. This office, together with the charge of the newly founded Vatican press and his duties in the Congregations, left still less time for his “Annals”. Troubles he had of another order. His zeal for the liberties of the church had early invited the disfavour of Philip II of Spain, who, because he was the strongest Catholic sovereign in Europe, was striving to exercise undue influence on the papacy. He incurred Philip’s further displeasure by supporting the cause of his enemy, the excommunicate Henry IV of France, whose absolution Baronius warmly advocated. The “Annals” were condemned by the Spanish Inquisition. Later on, when he published his treatise on the Sicilian Monarchy, proving the prior claim of the papacy to that of Spain in the suzerainty of Sicily and Naples, he provoked the bitter hostility of both Philip II and Philip III. He found solace, however, in the thought that the enmity of Spain would prevent the growing possibility of his being made pope. This hope was severely tried in the two conclaves of 1605. Baronius was the choice of a majority of the cardinals and, despite Spanish opposition, might have been elected had he not turned his diplomacy to encompass his own defeat. Thirty-seven votes out of a necessary forty in the first conclave and a violent attempt to precipitate his “adoration” in the second attest the esteem in which he was held.

In the spring of 1607 Baronius returned to the Oratory, for a vision had warned him that his sixty-ninth year would be his last, and he had reach the portended last volume of the “Annals”. Soon, critically ill, he was removed to Frascati, but, discerning the end, he returned to Rome, where he died 30 June, 1607. His tomb is at the left of the high altar in the church of Santa Maria in Vallicella (Chiesa Nuova).

Cardinal Baronius left a reputation for profound sanctity which led Benedict XIV to proclaim him “Venerable” (12 January, 1745). The restorations which he made in his titular church of Saints Nereus and Achilleus and in Saint Gregory’s on the Coelian still feebly bespeak his zeal for decorous worship. But the “Annals” constitute the most conspicuous and enduring monument of his genius and devotion to the Church. For three centuries they have been the inspiration of students of history and an inexhaustible storehouse for research. No one work has treated so completely the epoch with which they deal. Nowhere are there to be found collected so many important documents. Unbiased scholars recognize in them the foundation-stone of true historical science, and in their author the qualities of the model historian: indefatigable diligence in research, passion for verification, accuracy of judgment, and unswerving loyalty to truth. Even in the bitter controversies which the early volumes aroused, Baronius’ most scholarly critics acknowledged his thoroughness and honesty. But this does not imply that the work was faultless or final, Master though he was, Baronius was a pioneer. Gifted with a critical spirit which was, to say the least, much keener than that of his contemporaries, his exercise of it was tentative and timid. Yet he stimulated a spirit of criticism which would infallibly advance the science of history far beyond the reaches attainable by himself. With this wider vision his successors have been enabled to subject the “Annals” to no little corrective criticism. His scanty knowledge of Greek and Hebrew limited his resources in dealing with Oriental questions. Despite his care, he cited many documents as authentic which a more enlightened criticism has rejected as apocryphal. His most serious defects were incident to the very accuracy he essayed in casting his history in the strictly annalistic form. The attempt to assign to each successive year its own events involved him in numerous chronological errors. Baronius himself recognized the possibility of this and made many corrections in his second edition (Mainz, 1601-05); and later it was by his allies, and not by his enemies, that the most thorough efforts at chronological revision were made, a point seemingly lost on those who refer to Pagi’s “refutation” of Baronius’ errors. One has but to recall the diversity of opinion in matters of chronology among the chief exponents of historical science today to find palliation for the mistakes of that science’s founder. Whatever must be said in justice to Baronius, it remains true that the present-day value of his work is to be measured in the light of these defects, and it is to the critical editions of the “Annals” that the student will profitably refer, bearing always in mind that the mistakes of Baronius affect but little the value of the precious legacy his industry and genius handed down to later historians. The most extensive work of emendation is that of the Pagi: “Critica historico-chronologica in Annales”, etc. (3d ed., Antwerp, 1727, 4 vols.). Its preface contains a good study of the early criticism of the “Annals”.

To the original twelve volumes of the “Annals” there have been added continuations in the style of Baronius. The most worthy are those of the three Oratorians: Raynaldus, ablest of the continuators, who with material accumulated by Baronius carried the history to the year 1565 (Rome, 1646-77, 9 vols.); Laderchi, who continued it thence to 1571 (Rome, 1728-37, 3 vols.); and August Theiner, to 1583 (Rome, 1856). Less notable are the continuations of the Polish Dominican, Bzovius, 1198 to 1571 (Cologne, 1621-30, 9 vols.), and the French bishop, Sponde, 1198 to 1647 (Paris, 1659). There is a good study of the work of the continuators by Mansi in the Bar-le-Duc edition of Baronius, XX, p iii-xi. Many epitomes of the work have been made, the best being that of Sponde (Cologne, 1690, 2 vols.). As an exemplar of recent scientific working of a small portion of the field covered by Baronius may be cited, Rauschen, “Jahrbücher der Christlichen Kirche unter dem Kaiser Theodosius dem Grossen. Versuch einer Erneuerung der Annales Ecelesiastici des Baronius für die Jahre 378-395″ (Freiburg im Br., 1897). The best editions of Baronius are those of Lucca (1738-59, 38 vols.) and Bar-le-Duc (1864-83, 37 vols.); the former contains the continuations of Raynald and Laderchi, the critique of Pagi and others, and is enriched by the notes of Archbishop Mansi; the latter contains what is best in the former and the editorial additions of Father Theiner, whose continuation was to be included. Publication was suspended with the history of the year 1571. Baronius published many lesser works, most of which found place in the “Annals”. His life of Saint Gregory Nazianzen is in Acta SS., XV, 371-427.

MLA Citation

  • John Bertram Peterson. “Venerable Cesare Baronius”. Catholic Encyclopedia, 1913. Saints.SQPN.com. 11 November 2013. Web. 30 September 2014. <>