The Vatican Apostolic Library

Author: Kate Marcelin-Rice

The Vatican Apostolic Library

Kate Marcelin-Rice

History, facts and figures, innovations and cultural adventures

The Vatican Apostolic Library reopened on 20 September [2010] after a three-year renovation.
The Library as such was founded in the mid-14th century after the Popes returned from Avignon, although the figure of the Bibliothecarius (Librarian) of Holy Roman Church appeared at the end of the eighth century. It was Nicholas V (1447-1455) who decided that the Latin, Greek and Hebrew manuscripts should be made available to scholars. In his time the Library consisted of a single reading room. Sixtus IV completed his Predecessor's project with a Bull (Ad Decorum Militantis Ecclesiae of 15 June 1475), appointed a librarian and established financial support. Sixtus V (1585-1590) commissioned Domenico Fontana to build the premises which still house the Library today.

The Library was built on the stairway that divides the Cortile del Belvedere from the courtyard now known as the Library Courtyard. In the 17th and 18th centuries, it was endowed with many collections of princely origin. "Despite various adversities such as the losses occasioned by the Lansquenets during the Sack of Rome (1527) and the transfer of manuscripts to Paris in the Napoleonic period, the Vatican Apostolic Library was faithful to the mandate it had received to enrich, safeguard and preserve with the proper care the cultural treasures entrusted to it and to make them available to qualified scholars" (Sever Juan Voicu, Scriptor Graecus of the Vatican Library, L'Osservatore Romano English edition, 7 February 2007).

Most of the manuscripts were microfilmed at the beginning of the 1950s. The Vatican Film Library is located at St Louis University, Missouri, U.S.A., and houses more than 37,000 microfilms of manuscripts from the Vatican Apostolic Library ( In 1981 the Association "American Friends of the Vatican Library" was founded to encourage international interest and support for the institution.

From 1982, new stacks for the manuscripts were built beneath the internal courtyard. In 1985, manual cataloguing was replaced with electronic cataloguing and in the following years the data contained in the old card indexes (which have been preserved) were converted to electronic format. The system used is GEAC Advance. The new Periodicals Reading Room, where the most important material is available to readers on open shelves, was opened in September 2002.

Today the Vatican Library possesses about 150,000 manuscript volumes, said Cardinal Raphael Farina, SDB, previously Prefect and today Librarian of Holy Roman Church (L'Osservatore Romano Italian daily edition, 18 September 2010). It has about 1,000,000 printed books, more than 300,000 coins and medals, 100,000 prints and an important collection of ancient engravings.

Cardinal Farina said that their conservation, making them available to scholars and the integral transmission of the Library's treasures to the generations to come constitute a duty that has been carried out very effectively; as indeed it is today, the Cardinal continued, with "recourse to advanced studies and techniques, selecting with care the systems and companies that supply them".
It should be said that the Library makes very few purchases. The majority of its new acquisitions are gifts or exchanges.

The 3,000-4,000 scholars admitted each year are academics doing postgraduate level research. None of the books or manuscripts is loaned except, on occasion, to institutions for exhibitions or events "of a cultural or religious nature". The only person who may take anything out of the Library is the Pope. The strict rules forbid pens, food and even water in the manuscript reading room. There are small notices on each desk which say that all books must be left on the desk for the Library officials to replace.

What are the innovations that have been made? The most obvious at first sight is the new entrance (on the right of the main entrance used exclusively by the scholars and guests) for external staff and workers who will no longer disturb researchers.

Then there is the new, enlarged stainless-steel lift at the entrance with its now gleaming floors and marble staircase that gives access to the vast collections. A discreet new brick tower that blends with the brick walls of the courtyard has been built to ferry manuscripts from their underground bomb-proof vault to climate-controlled consultation rooms. The vault was built in 1982-1983. It has been made fire-proof and dust-proof floors and walls now protect the manuscripts.

Another innovation in this bunker is the creation of a small separate room with a drier atmosphere in which to keep papyrus and parchment documents.

Several new offices have been created and the management of certain services is now autonomous; the exhibitions office, the centre for the elaboration of data and the Library's publishing house; the historical archives have been separated from the current archives. The magnificently decorated Sistine Hall has been reclaimed from the Vatican Museums which rented it for about 10 years and is to be rehabilitated as a reading room.

All the services have been computerized. A wi-fi connection has been installed in the reading rooms. Each person who registers is given an electronic card with a micro-chip that also functions as the "key" to open the cupboards; this makes it possible to identify Library users and follow their movements. A personal password enables every scholar to connect with the internal network on his own computer, and thus to consult catalogues or other basic data online — for the time being on an experimental basis only manuscripts — and to send in requests for the codices he or she wishes to consult.

Electronic barriers and gates and closed-circuit television cameras permit the Library staff to keep track of everyone using the Library. They also prevent non-authorized people from moving books.

The 7,000 books have been fitted with electronic tags to prevent theft and loss; this is also a means of providing information, for example, on which books are most in demand. All these hi-tech security measures will certainly prevent another theft like the one that occurred in 1995.

Anthony Melnikas, an Ohio State University art history professor who had used the Library for years, gave a book dealer two pages of Latin text found to be cut from a book in the Vatican Library once owned by Petrarch. The dealer consulted a professor of art history at Princeton University who knew at once that they came from the Vatican Library. The Library authorities checked the book, discovered pages missing and sent the dealer a list of everyone who had consulted the volume since 1891. He was able to identify Prof. Melnikas as the person who had approached him.

A reason why the closure of the Library in summer 2007 could not be postponed was that one wing of the 16th-century building was found to be structurally unsound in that year; the weight of the books was too heavy for the foundations, the floor was sagging and more than 350,000 books had to be removed from the endangered wing. During the closure the whole of this area was renewed and reinforced and the appropriate air-conditioning installed. The restructuring had in fact been planned for some time.

A rush of scholars arrived to complete their work before the Library closed for the first time in its 500-year history. Nevertheless, while it was closed the service of reproducing documents (photocopies, microfilm, digitization, ektachromes) and consultation by correspondence continued.

Mons. Cesare Pasini, the Prefect of the Library, was moved by the reactions to the announcement of the closure. He wrote in a "Dear Library" article published in L'Osservatore Romano Italian edition of 5 September just before the reopening that he had been reading the answers to the Newsletter he had sent to the Library's friends and researchers. Some were uncertain as to whether the renovation work would be finished on time. Others told of how they felt on hearing the news of the closure or expressed their impatience to return and their nostalgia for "their" Library; and one person, the Prefect said, after the official announcement in December 2009 of the opening date, wrote: "I never doubted that the Vatican Library would respect the timeframe and, with a hint of vanity I am pleased to say: 'I told you so'.

The broad participation, the Prefect said, "may be a consequence of the efforts and common hardship of these past three years which have demanded and encouraged a progressively greater knowledge of the Library through various channels, starting with the Newsletter".

Mons. Pasini introduced the Newsletter to keep those unable to work in the Library informed on the progress of the renovations. He said in the above-mentioned article, "once we had surmounted the initial misunderstanding with remonstrations against the closure that had already been fixed", given the unavoidable need for the work and once people were better acquainted with the renovation under way, "all found themselves in solidarity". He has therefore decided to continue the Newsletter after the reopening of the Library as a means of circulating information and keeping in touch.

This feeling of solidarity was echoed by Card. Farina who said that many views had been expressed but were on the whole appreciative of the general plan for the restructuring of the Library; this plan had taken about 10 years to finalize, he said, partly due to the time needed to raise the necessary funds — nine million euros.

At a press conference on 13 September prior to the reopening of the Library, Cardinal Farina said that plans for the future include the reopening of the Sistine Hall and the installation of air-conditioning in the prints storage area, as well as the ongoing updating of the Library's website. Mons. Pasini said at the same press conference that regarding conservation, the future project of the digitization of the Library's manuscripts had been examined in depth and that funds were being sought for the implementation of this enormous task.

Perhaps the Library's most precious possession is the Papyrus P75, Bodmer 14-15, which is the oldest surviving testimony of the texts of Luke and John. It was donated to Pope Benedict XVI in 2007 by the Sally and Frank Hanna Family Foundation with the Solidarity Association (U.S.A.) and the Mater Verbi/Hanna Papyrus Trust. The codex was transcribed in the last decades of the second century or a little later: hence less than 150 years after the canonical Gospels were written. It was found in 1952 in Jabal al-Tarif, in the heart of Egypt, among the ruins of an ancient monastery. A Swiss collector, Martin Bodmer purchased it in 1955.

A book, a congress and an exhibition are planned to celebrate the Library's reopening. The first of seven volumes on the history of the Vatican Library will come out in November (Le origini della Biblioteca Vaticana tra Umanesimo e Rinascimento), then one volume at two-year intervals.

The Congress on the theme "La Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana come luogo di ricerca e come istituzione al servizio degli studiosi", will be held from 11 to 13 November [2010] on the results of the decades of study carried out thanks to the Library.

Lastly, an exhibition in the Braccio Carlo Magno, St Peter's Square, will be open to the public from 11 November until the end of January 2011. It is entitled "Conoscere la Biblioteca Vaticana: una storia aperta al futuro" [Getting to know the Vatican Library: a history open to the future].

The exhibition will offer the general public an opportunity to learn about the Vatican Apostolic Library, demonstrating, for instance, how the Library cares for and repairs the damaged bindings of the fragile codices. Barbara Jatta, Prints Curator, who is involved in organizing the exhibition, said that visitors would see panels illustrating the activity, cataloguing and restoration work. She also explained that not only will original manuscripts be on display but also facsimiles which it will be possible to leaf through. And the Sistine Hall will be recreated on panels. (K. M. R.)

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 October 2010, page 14

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