The Vatican Archive: the Pope's private library is secret no more
The man standing outside the Porta Santa Anna Gate of the Vatican wearing a blue Gap shirt and none-too-expertly pressed Muji trousers could easily pass as an academic, or the cultural correspondent of an obscure television channel.
In fact, he is neither of these things. He is a man on a mission, a mission of the utmost delicacy.
Soon the man will pass beyond the gate and the Swiss guards with their navy blue uniforms with brown belts, white collars and black berets, designed by Commandant Jules Repond in 1914.
Overhead, a flock of starlings, ancient symbols of undying love, wheel in the morning air.
Under escort, he will be taken into the inner sanctum of the Vatican, through an enormous pair of brass doors upon which some of the gorier scenes of the Old Testament are picked out in bas-relief.
Passing through various security cordons, each one staffed by guards more suspicious than the last, he will mount a narrow winding staircase.
Up the staircase he goes, past barred windows and tiny panelled chambers in which black-soutaned figures sit reading by the light of hushed lamps, to the very top of the 73m-tall tower.
This is the Tower of the Winds, built by Ottavinao Mascherino between 1578 and 1580, a place to which mere members of the public are never normally admitted.
Here in the Hall of the Meridian, a room covered in frescoes depicting the four winds, is a tiny hole high up in one of the walls.
At midday, the sun, shining through the hole, falls along a white marble line set into the floor. On either side of this meridian line are various astrological and astronomical symbols, once used to try to calculate the effect of the wind upon the stars.
But this is not the real reason why this man with the shabby trousers, the oddly distinguished-looking grey hair and the abundance of irrelevant detail has come to the Vatican.
No, the real reason for this lies elsewhere in the Tower of Winds, in rooms lined with miles and miles of dark wooden shelves – more than 50 miles of them in fact.
Here, bound in cream vellum, are thousands upon thousands of volumes, some more than a foot thick.
This is the Vatican secret archive, possibly the most mysterious collection of documents in the world.
Here you can find accounts of the trial of the Knights Templar held at Chinon in August 1308; a threatening note from 1246 in which Ghengis Khan’s grandson demands that Pope Innocent IV travel to Asia to ‘pay service and homage; a letter from Lucretia Borgia to Pope Alexander VI; Papal Bulls excommunicating Martin Luther; correspondence between the Court of Henry VIII and Clement VII; and an exchange of letters between Michelangelo and Paul III.
There are also letters from Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, St Bernadette, Voltaire and Abraham Lincoln.
And here too – depending on how much faith you have in the novels of Dan Brown – lies proof that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and continued their own earthly line.
Once, Napoleon had the whole of the secret archive transported to Paris.
It was brought back, albeit with some key documents missing, in 1817 and has remained in the Vatican ever since – a constant source of myth and fascination.
But now the Vatican Secret Archive is secret no more.
This story begins two years ago when a Belgian publisher called Paul Van den Heuvel asked a friend of his who works in the Vatican if there was any hope of his being allowed to do a book about the secret archive.
This friend, says Van den Heuvel, is ‘very close’ to the Pope.
As he admits, Van den Heuvel is not a particularly ecclesiastical man. He’s not a particularly ecclesiastical publisher either.
An excitable, gap-toothed Belgian, his previous book was a lavishly illustrated coffee table volume on The Most Beautiful Wine Cellars in the World.
To his surprise he received word back that highly placed sources within the Vatican had been impressed with The Most Beautiful Wine Cellars in the World. As a result, he was told, his proposal might be given the go-ahead.
Just what the Vatican’s motivation was is none too clear. Scholars have been allowed in the archive since 2003, so long as they know exactly which document they’d like a look at – browsing is not allowed.
Certainly, they haven’t always looked kindly on book proposals about the secret archive.
Fifteen years ago, when a priest and former Vatican archivist called Filippo Tamburini published a book called Saints and Sinners about the clergy’s indiscretions, the full weight of the Vatican’s disapproval came down upon him.
He had, it was claimed, perpetrated ‘an abuse’ that was ‘strongly deplored’. But largely as a result of the Vatican’s intervention, Tamburini’s book sold far more copies than it would otherwise have done.
According to Monsignor Sergio Pagano, Prefect of the Archivio Segreto Vaticano: ‘A lot of hypotheses and stories about the archive have been going around. We want to show it as it really is.’
For three days Van den Heuvel was given the run of the archive with no restrictions placed on what he could inspect or photograph – or so he claims.
In fact, this turns out not to be quite the case: there was one extremely big restriction in place. He wasn’t allowed to look at any documents that dated from after 1939.
The reason given was that these include Papal annulments of marriages of people who might still be alive.
It’s at this point that the keen conspiracy theorist throws up his or her hands and exclaims ‘Ha!’.
What a coincidence that this should also cover the most sensitive periods in recent Vatican history: the Second World War and the continuing scandal of paedophile priests.
There may be something in this, of course.
Nine years ago, a joint plan by Jewish and Roman Catholic scholars ended amid acrimony with the Vatican refusing to allow the Jewish scholars further access to its archives – and the Jewish scholars protesting that the Vatican was plainly trying to cover something up.
This came after a report that said the documents examined ‘did not put to rest significant questions about the Holocaust’.
However, one should also remember that the Vatican has recently released a number of wartime documents, which, they say, help to prove that Pope Pius XII, far from being a Nazi-sympathising anti-Semite – as his detractors claim – was in fact working behind the scenes trying to help the Jews.
The present Pope, back in the days when he was plain Cardinal Ratzinger, authorised the opening of one section of the archive in 1998.
This dealt with the Spanish Inquisition. To great surprise in some quarters – and less surprise in others – these documents revealed that the Inquisition hadn’t really been such a bloody business after all.
The Catholic Church had executed a mere one per cent of the alleged heretics they put on trial. As for the others, they had been dealt with by ‘non-church tribunals’ – overenthusiastic freelancers.
A similar thing happened when a document about the Knights Templar was released three years ago.
According to the document, Pope Clement V was not the persecutor of the Templars as had previously been claimed. Far from it: he initially absolved the Templar leaders of heresy.
Only after he’d come under pressure from the French king, the far-from-appropriately-named Philip the Fair, did he reverse his decision. But even then, it seems, Clement’s intention was to reform the Templars, not drive them from the face of the Earth.
By the end of his three days, Van den Heuvel had whittled his choice of documents down to 125. The oldest document in the archive dates from the end of the eighth century.
Among the more recent is a letter written by Pope Pius XI to Hitler in December 1934. However, anyone hoping for something bullish in tone will be looking in vain.
The letter – in response to an earlier letter from Hitler asking Pius to try to improve relations between Germany and the Vatican – addresses Hitler as ‘Illustro and honorabili viro Adolpho Hitler’, which must have brought pleasure to the Führer.
However, as the text points out, the Pope markedly omits to offer Hitler his blessing at the end. Not exactly a brush-off, but a diplomatic snub just the same.
Here, too, is a letter written in 1530 by the Archbishop of Canterbury along with five other bishops and 22 mitred abbots to Clement VII complaining about the Pope’s ‘excessive delay’ in annulling Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon (there was also, some time later, an excessive delay in finding the document; it was discovered under a chair, in 1926).
Any refusal by the Pope to issue an annulment, they intimate, would result in them taking extreme measures for the good of the kingdom; request denied, Henry formed the Church of England.
Among the seals with which the letter is festooned – plus the red ribbons that inspired the phrase ‘red tape’ – is one belonging to Thomas Wolsey, ‘Cardinal and Archbishop of York’.
Fifty-six years later, Mary Queen of Scots wrote to Pope Sixtus V on the eve of her execution. Mary declares that she wishes to die in the grace of God and regrets that she does not have recourse to the sacraments.
As the letter goes on, it becomes steadily more plaintive, more poignant. She begs the Pope to take care of her son, James, and concludes with a postscript in which she warns him that there may be traitors among his cardinals.
Voltaire’s letter to Pope Benedict XIV, written in 1745, strikes a more sycophantic tone:
‘Allow me, Holy Father, to present my best wishes together with all of Christendom and to implore Heaven that Your Holiness might be most tardily received among those saints whose canonisations you have so laboriously and successfully investigated.’
Legend has always had it that an infuriated Napoleon snatched the crown from the hands of Pius VII and stuck it on his own head at his Coronation in December 1804.
In fact, as a document here makes plain, the Pope was eager to keep his own involvement in the whole affair to a minimum.
Napoleon, by contrast, didn’t think anyone else was worthy of crowning him and was more than happy to do the job himself.
One of the archive’s more fragile documents is a letter from a group of Christian Ojibwe American Indians, written on birch bark.
Dated ‘where there is much grass, in the month of the flowers’ (in other words, Grassy Lake, Ontario, in May), the letter is addressed to Pope Leo, or ‘the Great Master of Prayer, he who holds the place of Jesus’.
If there is anything among the tomes about Jesus getting hitched to Mary Magdalene or about St Paul making up the Resurrection you won’t find it here.
That, however, doesn’t necessarily mean it isn’t there. The truth is that no one really knows just what exactly is in the archive.
There are only 30 archivists – plus a small team charged with digitising their finds – and they have an awful lot of volumes to examine.
Three years ago, a Michelangelo drawing was found – ‘a partial plan for the radial column of the cupola dome of St Peter’s Basilica’.
Hardly the most exciting Michelangelo ever unearthed, but a Michelangelo none the less.
Perhaps more interesting is the note in which the artist complains that his payment for work on the dome is three months overdue.
For the time being Van den Heuvel’s The Vatican Secret Archives should keep the non-specialists satisfied.
Along with a main edition of 14,000, he is publishing 33 ‘unique collectors’ editions’ priced at just under £4,360 a throw – each ‘fully hand-bound in sheep parchment and hand-stitched with cotton thread’.
One of these unique collectors’ editions is being reserved for the Pope himself.
Soon, it will no doubt occupy an honoured place on his Holiness’s shelves – perhaps next to his copy of Great Wine Cellars of the World.
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