Born on 24th August 1723 in Naples to Gennaro de Felice and his wife Caterina Rossetti. His father was an ‘ottonaro’ or lantern-maker. He was the eldest of six children; Ferdinando, Giovanni Battista, Elisabetta, Franceso and Pietro. In 1733, the family moved to Rome, where de Felice was confirmed at the age of 13 at the parish of St. Celso e Giuliano on via dei Coronari. They all lived in the parish and Gennaro and Caterina both spent the rest of their life there until their deaths in 1785 and 1750 respectively.
When Fortunato was 15 he attended the Collegio Romano studying with the Jesuits. In 1740, he studied in one the colleges in Brescia, returning to Rome in 1744 in order to become a ‘sub-deacon’. He advanced to Deacon of the Minor Order of the Friars Minor Observant on 18th May 1746, and was ordained as a priest.
In 1750, he was appointed as Professor Ancient and Modern Geography at the University of Naples and later Experimental Physics. It was here that he rekindled a teenage love, with the Countess of Panzutti, Agnese Arcuato. However, the countess was already married to Giuseppe Felipe Augusto. Initially Augusto granted her a divorce, but later locked her in a tower to prevent her and de Felice from seeing each other. In 1752, de Felice rescued Arcuato and they eloped.
Augusto, unfortunately a Catholic notary, alerted the Catholic Church who was furious over a priest committing adultery. Fleeing from religious persecution, the Count and Countess fled across Europe staying with friends, hiding in monasteries and Fortunato travelled under the pseudonym, Matteo Ughi. They endured several setback including their arrest in April 1757 in Genoa, which led to Fortunato being relegated to a Tuscan convent, however he soon escaped, and converted to Protestantism on 26th June 1757 after seeking asylum in Bern, Switzerland.
For a short time the couple lived happily, now married and Agnese pregnant with their first child. Fortunato took part in the launch of the Bern Typographic Society, with whom he would have a lasting relationship. However, tragedy struck when they were taken in by a close friend, Tscharner, in his Chateau Lansitz. Agnese caught a fever and died in June 1759.
Inconsolable but in need of neutrality, de Felice remarried. This time to Susanna Catherine de Wavre, the daughter of noble Swiss family from Neuchatel. It is recorded that the Council of Thielle-Wavre in Neuchatel on the 10th December received ‘a number of subject of his majesty according to letters of neutrality’, welcoming Fortunato due to ‘fine testimonies’.
De Felice arriving to this new country destitute became very popular in his new life in Switzerland, and in 1762 he founded the now famous Yverdon Press, where he published the Encyclopedia d’Yverdon. The press was extremely successful, and soon de Felice was able to remake his fortune. In 1766 he purchased the Warney House in Yverdon as the family estate. In 1772 the estate was expanded to include du Tertre in Bonvillars, where he built an extension of his printing house as well.
After his first wife Agnese died, he remarried three times; first, Susanne Catherine de Wavre, secondly, Louise Marie Perrelet and lastly, Jeanne Salome Sinnet. In total he had thirteen children:
Bernard Frederich Fortune 1760-1832
Charles Rodolphe Carolus 1763-1823
Jeanne Elisabeth 1764-1838
Daniel Nicholas Samuel 1766 -
Charlotte Marguerite 1771 -
Fortune David 1772 -
Henri Barthemy 1773 -
Rose Susanne 1774-
Frederic Charles 1775 -
Gabriel Francois 1776 -
Catherine Louise Elisabeth 1780 -
Madeleine 1785 -
On 13th February 1789 he died at the age of 65. He predeceased his fourth wife, Jeanne Salome Sinnet, leaving her to deal with his vast estate and some large debts.