From The Early Acharonim:
R' Azaryah min HaAdomim
b. Mantua, Italy, c. 5271/1511
d. Bologna (?) Italy, 5338/1578
According to an old tradition, the family de Rossi was brought to Italy by Titus after his victory over Jerusalem.
R' Azaryah combined Talmudic erudition with a great proficiency in the Latin and Greek classics, as well as in the writings of medieval Christian scholars. In his works he draws upon Jewish, Christian, and secular sources. De Rossi resided in Bologna and Ferrara, and was present in Ferrara during the terrible earthquake on 17 Kislev (Nov. 18) 5331/ 1570. He and his family narrowly escaped death during that catastrophe, and he devoted a section of his Meor Einayim to a narration of it.
R' Azaryah is known for his controversial work Meor Einayim (Mantua, 5333-35/1573-75). This sefer is divided into three parts: I. Kol Elokim, a report on the earthquake which hit Ferrara in 5331/ 1570, including an essay on the natural and supernatural causes of natural catastrophes; II. Hadras Zekeinim - a translation (the first in Hebrew) of the epistle of Aristeas which contains the narrative about the Septuagint (translation of the Torah into Greek by seventy two sages in Egypt during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus [3476 3515/285246 B.C.E.]), a partial description of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the answers given by the Sages to some philosophical questions; III. Imrei Binah - the most extensive part of this work. It contains an examination of the writings of Philo, a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria in the first century C.E.; a comparison of the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Bible) in its prevalent version with the reports about it in the Talmud; inquiries into the Talmudic chronology of the first and second Temples, comparing the traditional dates with those given by secular writers; inquiries into the calendar systems in use among Jews in the Talmudic era, i.e., the Seleucid calendar (minyan shtaros) and the now-prevalent custom of dating events from Creation; a dissertation on the priestly vestments as described in the works of Philo, Josephus Flavius, the Epistle of Aristeas and Christian writers; and comments on some wondrous aggados in the Talmud and midrashim.
De Rossi's inquiries led to many conclusions which contradict the tradition of the Tannaim and Amoraim; he maintained that this was permissible in the realm of history and other areas not pertaining to halachah. R' Azaryah's views raised a great furor in the Italian community of his day, and two prominent rabbis - R' Moshe Provencal of Mantua and R' Yitzchak Finzi of Pesaro - wrote letters protesting the author's views, and refuting his assertions. R' Moshe Provencal's criticism reached R' Azaryah while the book was yet in proof form, so he printed it and his rejoinder as an appendix to the book. Various local batei din banned the book, some restricting the ban to people under the age of twenty-five, while others prohibited even having the book in one's house. Some of the extant copies of the Meor Einayim have written dispensations by local batei din attached to them, allowing the owner to keep the book.
News of the controversial sefer even reached Eretz Yisrael, and *Chida reports that in Safed a general ban (cherem) against it was drawn up and was to be signed br R' Yosef Caro, but he died before signing it. The *Maharal of Prague, upon reading this sefer, was outraged that the rabbis of Italy had allowed its publication, and he wrote a lengthy critique of the sefer in his Be'er HaGolah. Nevertheless, some later sages, among them Chasam Sofer, and two of Maharal's pupils, *R' David Ganz Tzemach David) and *R' Yom Tov Lipman Heller, cite Meor Einayim, if only to refute its views. R' Azaryah later wrote another work, Matzreif LaKessef (Edinburgh, 5614/1854), defending his views.
Meor Einayim regained popularity in modern days, when the Maskilim misrepresented R' Azaryah as a progressive Jew, a denomination R' Azaryah would surely have resented.
Yosef Hayyim Yerushalmi, incidentally, makes the following claim (Zakhor, pp. 74-75)
The fact that, in 1794, the Me'or 'Einayim was reprinted in Berlin by the Maskilim, the proponents of Jewish enlightenment, should not mislead us in this respect. By that time the general revolution that is modern critical historiography was about to burst forth in Germany. The Historisches Journal had already appeared in Göttingen for more than two decades, Barthold Niebuhr was eighteen years old, and Leopold Von Ranke would be born a year later. The modern Jewish historian is not the heir of Azariah de' Rossi, but of these men and others.
More controversial rabbis to come...