Making the Invisible Visible: The Secret Vatican Archives.

With the surprise and somewhat sudden resignation of Pope Benedict XVI the Catholic Church and the Vatican have been thrust onto the world stage. While the world will be focused upon the conclave of cardinals who will elect a new Pope at the end of this March, little attention will be paid to the world beneath the Cathedrals of Rome where miles and miles of underground shelving and antiquated parchment make up the Secret Vatican Archives (Archivum Secretum Vaticanum).

Some of the 50 miles of bookshelves in the Vatican secret archive Photo: The Vatican Secret Archives, Vdh Books

Some of the 50 miles of bookshelves in the Vatican secret archive Photo: The Vatican Secret Archives, Vdh Books

Perhaps made famous by its depiction in the 2009 film based off of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons the archive has always had an aura of mystery, conspiracy, and black legend attached to its name. While much of this has been exaggerated in film and literature the archive does hold some of the world’s oldest and most influential documents including priceless materials such as:

  •  Handwritten records of Galileo’s trial before the Inquisition
  • The 1530 petition from England’s House of Lords asking the Pope to annual Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon
  • Letters from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis during the U.S. Civil War
  • The papal bull excommunicating Martin Luther
  • Letters from Michelangelo including one where he complained about not receiving payment for his work on the Sistine Chapel.

Founded in 1612 the Vatican Secret Archives is a treasure trove of documents whose materials cover a time span that stretches from the 8th to 20th century.  Specifically, the archives is the central archives “of the Holy See and contains the historical archives of different private and public institution,” which include various religious orders and famous families and individuals[1].

For most of the world, the archive’s priceless cultural items have remained hidden deep within the Vatican for over 400 years. In fact it wasn’t until 1881 that Pope Leo XIII opened the doors of the archive to scholars from all faiths and nations. Even today there are strict limitations to what archive users are able to view and access. For instance no materials dated after 1939 are available for public viewing.

A document from the Vatican Secret Archives with Galileo's own signature.

A document from the Vatican Secret Archives with Galileo’s own signature. Photo Courtsey Lux in Arcana Exhibit

And yet in the spirit of open access and freedom of information that is foundational to the library and information world, even the Vatican’s Secret Archives is trying to shed light into its often hidden archive. This metaphor is perfectly illustrated in the chosen name of the archive’s first ever exhibit Lux in Arcana or “Light in Mysterious Places.”  Opened from March to September 2012 the Vatican assembled an exhibit to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the archive’s founding.  The exhibit, which can be sampled online, hopes to promote a greater sense of openness by displaying 100 of its most prized original documents. Historically the archive’s documents have only been viewed by few individuals outside the Vatican, however the Lux in Arcana exhibit opens the archive’s contents up to millions of eyes around the world. The Vatican Library is also following this trend to share its materials with the world with the recent announcement of its ambitious project to digitize large portions of its collection including the Gutenberg Bible, the first book printed using movable type in Europe. [2]

With the unprecedented Lux in Arcana exhibition and now upcoming election of a new pope the Vatican, a bastion of tradition, shows signs of change and evolution.



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