Vatican Apostolic Archives | Step into the Secret Archives of the Vatican
Vatican Secret Archive
The Vatican Archives was initially named the "Vatican Secret Archives". However, in October 2019 Pope Francis changed the centuries-old title of Vatican Secret Archives (Archivum Secretum Vaticanum) to the Vatican Apostolic Archives. The Pope issued an Apostolic Letter, motu proprio, dated 22 October, renaming the archive. The name change was part of an effort to clear out the misinterpretations that arose out of the usage of the term "Segreto" (Secret).
In Latin, both secretum, means separate or private) and apostolicum means, belonging to the domnus apostolicus, i.e. the pope). Thus, swapping the terms, for all practical purposes, did not change the archives' identity or purpose. It continues to be the private archives of the Pope.
However, it would not be so wrong to call it a secret archive, in the sense that the archives is not open to the common public, and only scholars and researchers. Parts of the archive continue to remain classified.
What is Inside Vatican Archives?
Inside the Vatican Archives are millions of historical documents, many of which have a crucial role to play in understanding past events.
Letter from Mary Queen of Scots
Included in the archives is a letter from Mary, the Queen of Scots, addressed to Pope Sixtus V. The letter was sent to the Pope months before her scheduled execution, where she requests him to save her life and free her from prison. Unfortunately, the Pope decided not to interpose and Mary was executed in 1587.
Catholic Church’s excommunication of Martin Luther
Martin Luther was banned from the Catholic Church in the year 1521. The Vatican Archives contains a letter written by Pope Leo X on behalf of the papal bull, barring him from the Church.
Minutes of the trials against the Knights Templar
During the Crusades, the Knights Templar enjoyed a prestigious life of wealth and privilege, which eventually came to be seen as a liability. Following this, Philip IV of France ordered all the Knights to be arrested on October 13, 1307. After being tortured for years, many declared themselves guilty of the crime and were burned at the stake. Minutes from the trial that lasted for several years were documented and kept in the archives.
Notes from the trial against Galileo
One of the world’s most renowned scientists, Galileo, was the first to question the Catholic Church’s view about the movement of the earth. His observations led him to state that the Earth revolves around the sun for which he was arrested and spent the rest of his life imprisoned. The archives contain notes from his trial.
Letters from Michelangelo
The Vatican Archives contains a letter written by the renowned artist Michelangelo to the Pope warning him that the Vatican guards had not received their payment for three months. He also mentioned that as a result of this, the guards were threatening to quit. What happened as a result of this warning by the artist remains unclear.
Henry VIII’s request for annulment from wife Catherine of Aragon
One of the most treasured documents inside the archives is a letter from Henry VIII requesting the Pope for an annulment from his wife Catherine of Aragon. Henry was in love with Anne Boleyn and wished to marry her. His letter was also signed by 85 members of the clergy, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Unfortunately, the Pope denied his request, after which he started his own church and gave himself a divorce.
Vatican Archives Rooms
Every year, the Vatican Apostolic Archive invites about 1,500 scholars from all over the world. The scholars are provided with four study rooms, each of which is equipped with workstations and power sockets for laptops. One room is for going through the original documents, while two rooms are used to discuss the printed matter and to view digital copies of the same. The fourth room is used for consulting inventories and the use of other research tools.
Bunkers and Warehouses
The Vatican Archives house millions of documents including registers, volumes, files, folders, envelopes, and individual documents. In order to preserve these records, they are placed in specially-equipped rooms. Parchments are stored in two air-conditioned rooms with constant temperature and humidity, while 81 parchments with gold seals are in a reserved air-conditioned sector. Documents made out of paper are stored in the Bunker as well as in other deposits.
Special School of Palaeography and Applied Criticism
Pope Leo XIII wanted to offer young clergy adequate training to exercise historical criticism, and so he founded the Special School of Palaeography and Applied Criticism as part of the Vatican Secret Archives. Having been an established institution for over 100 years, the School has trained many generations of scholars within the field of historical research. It continues to offer several specialized courses combining theoretical aspects with practical application using original documents from the Vatican Archives.
The first floor of the Apostolic Palace became the official home of the archive in 1612, while the setup of the rooms began in 1610. Noble Floor consists of three contiguous rooms that overlook the Courtyard of the Library and connect to the Sistine Hall of the Museums.
Over the years, the archives saw a progressive growth in the number of documents being housed, leading to the expansion of its premises. Alexander VII Chigi decided to extend the archive rooms to the ones immediately above the Noble Floor. Included in this section are official documents of the Secretariat of State dating back to the 17th century.
Tower of the Winds
Torre dei Venti or Tower of the Winds is one of the most famous buildings in the Vatican. It was constructed between the years 1578 and 1580 by renowned architect Bolognese Ottaviano Mascherino. Originally, it consisted of an observatory that was used to study evidence for the reform of the Calendar.
History of the Vatican Archives
1st Century BC
During the first century of Christianity, the Church was already in possession of a substantial collection of official documents. This was referred to as the Holy Scrinium or the Chartarium and was usually taken along with the Pope in the event of travel. Since it was moved around a lot, many of these records were lost, however, the knowledge of them still remains through references in later documentation.
Before the Founding of the Archives
11th to 13th centuries
Initially, the archival documents were kept at the Lateran Palace, which was the official residence of the Pope at the time. However, by the 11th century, they were stored separately at two other sites, including St. Peter’s Basilica and the Palantine Palace. A lot of the documents disappeared between the 11th and 13th centuries, when the Popes moved to Avignon, and when the Roman Empire tried to get hold of the documents. Many tried to claim authority over the archives during these years and a large number of documents were even deliberately destroyed by Pope Innocent VII and his successor Pope Gregory XII during the 14th century.
Founding of the Archives
After centuries of turmoil over the documents, Pope Paul V instructed all the Church records to be assembled in one place. Finally, the scattered documents were finally put together at the Vatican’s Archives in 1784. This can be considered the official founding of the Vatican Archives.
Pope Francis finally changed the name of the priceless archives from Vatican Secret Archive to the Vatican Apostolic Archive in 2019.
Late 18th Century
When Napoleon conquered states in Italy during the late 18th century, he demanded that the Pope submit pictures, statues, manuscripts, and more to the French Republic. These were to be chosen by French Agents, following which a treaty called the Treaty of Tolentino ordered for many other works to be handed over. When he became the Emperor in 1804, he had the complete archive transferred to Paris.
Restoration of the Archive
Fortunately, after Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the documents were returned to the Vatican. The French government, however, provided inadequate funding because of which the Vatican officials were forced to sell chunks of material to raise the money for transportation. It is believed that about one-third to one-fourth of the archives were not included in the documents that were returned.
Access to Scholars
Towards the second half of the 18th century, prefects of the Vatican Archives began publishing collections of documents. Eventually, scholars were granted access to the material, including manuscripts relating to the trial of Galileo. This was briefly interrupted during the dissolution of the Papal States in order to maintain restricted access to the archives.
Pope Leo XIII appointed Cardinal Josef Hergenröther as the official archivist, who then went on to grant historians access to the archives. This access, however, remained limited to protect the Church from slander against Protestant researchers. In April 1883, Theodor von Sickel, the German Protestant historian, used documents in the archive to defend the Church against charges of forgery. Pleased by this outcome, this ultimately led to the archives being open to any research that was impartial and critical.
Carlo Ginzburg, a respected historian, wrote a letter to Pope John Paul II in 1979 asking for the archives of the Holy Office to be opened. It was believed that this letter was crucial in the Vatican’s decision to open up its archives.
The Vatican had developed several policies to limit access to certain records. One of these policies was that access to the archive would be granted only 75 years after the resignation of a Pope. Exceptions were made in certain situations, where scholars were allowed to look through relevant documents.
Pope Francis in 2018 opened the archives to a group of journalists following the release of the movie Angels & Demons based on the novel by Dan Brown. This was done to disprove the depictions of the archives in the film. During that same year, the archives were accessible to look into the case of the former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was accused of having affairs with and sexually molesting young priests. Additionally, in 2002, scholars were also allowed to access documents relating to the Church’s involvement with the Nazi Party.
Research and Conservation
The Vatican Apostolic Archives published a series of collections to aid and contribute to research and history. Collectanea is one such series published in 1968 which are closely related to the Archives itself with regard to its content and history. Digitization has also resulted in the reproduction of some of the oldest series of papal registers from centuries ago.
Conservation and Restoration
It is only natural that physical documents begin to degrade over time. With the aim of protecting the materials within the archive, the Restoration and Conservation Laboratory was established in 1958 and perfected its process in 1982. Using methods to physically restore documents, in addition to creating rooms with suitable lighting, temperature, and other factors have resulted in a successful process of conservation and restoration of the archives.
For a while now, the Vatican Archives has been involved in the process of digitization of documents. This entails the acquisition, digitization, and classification of all the material. Doing this will not only make research easier, but it also means longer preservation of the archives without having to physically refer to them.
With the aim of preserving and documenting the massive information that resides in the Vatican Archives, several projects have been undertaken in recent years. These include collaborations with cultural organizations, companies, foundations, and the like, that are in keeping with the aim of restoration, digitization, and more of the documents.
All Your Questions About Vatican Archives Answered
A. The Vatican Apostolic Archives is the central repository within the Vatican. It houses all acts disseminated by the Holy See, state papers, correspondence, account books, and other documents accumulated by the church over the centuries.
A. Yes, the Vatican Apostolic Archives and Vatican Secret Archives are the same. It was initially named the "Vatican Secret Archives". However, in October 2019 Pope Francis changed the name to the Vatican Apostolic Archives.
A. Inside the Vatican Archives you will find all acts disseminated by the Holy See, state papers, correspondence, account books, and other documents accumulated by the church over the centuries.
A. The Vatican Archives is open to scholars that aim to use the archives for research. They have to get hold of an admission card to gain entry into the archives.
A. Qualified scholar with a specialist degree or other equivalent university degrees from institutions of higher education pursuing scientific research with adequate knowledge of archival research can access the Vatican Archives.
A. The Pope issued an Apostolic Letter, motu proprio, dated 22 October, renaming the archive from Vatican Secret Archives to Vatican Apostolic Archives. The name change was part of an effort to clear out the misinterpretations that arose out of the usage of the term "Segreto " (Secret).
A. No, the Vatican Library and the Vatican Archives are not the same. It was separated from each other in the 17th century. The Vatican Archives is located near the Vatican Library.