The Vatican Secret Archive

October 16th, 2023

Vatican Apostolic Archive (The Vatican)

Imagine a hidden underground location filled with an endless amount of important books and manuscripts on nearly 100 km of shelving, including a manuscript that dates to 809 AD. Sounds incredible? It sure is.

Although non-political, the Holy See has been a powerhouse in the world of politics for many centuries. This is due to the massive influence that the pope and the Catholic church have worldwide. Over the years, they have collected and preserved books, manuscripts, letters, and relics in high amounts. Many other prominent collectors have donated notable treasures to the Holy See, making the Vatican Archive grow in quantity and quality each year.

In fact, the official name of the archive is Vatican Apostolic Archive, but it’s known to the public as the Vatican Secret Archive, or simply the Vatican Archive. In 2019, Pope Francis changed the name from “Archivum Secretum Vaticanum” to Vatican Apostolic Archive.

As the sovereign of Vatican City, the pope is technically the archive’s owner until his death or resignation. That has been the case since the archive was founded in 1612 by Pope Paul V. The access to the archive is very strict as only the curators and the pope are allowed to visit the archive. There are some exceptions, though. As the Holy See encourages education and history studies, they welcome some people to the archive. The process of getting there is, however, complex. Notably, it was strictly forbidden to enter the archive until 1881. Still, nowadays, there’s a process where the applicant needs to fill out a reason, which needs to be backed by a reputable academic who has to write a letter of recommendation. Perhaps the most exciting detail in the process is that the applicant needs to request a certain item specifically. Meaning that it’s not possible to ask for “documents related to Galileo Galilei”, but rather, one needs to request specifically which document they are referring to. This leads to a moment 22 situation where you can’t request something you don’t know exists. But then again, that’s part of the mystery surrounding the Vatican Archive.

Despite not being confirmed as the world’s single largest archive of historical documents, the Vatican Archive is in the top three worldwide. However, it’s arguably the most important archive of its kind due to its treasures. As stated above, the majority of the inventory is kept from the public, but some items are known. Below are some of the highlights.

Vatican Apostolic Archive (The Vatican)

Papal Bull from Pope Alexander VI
One year after the Italian explorer Christopher Columbus “discovered” America and the “New World”, the then-pope, Alexander VI, issued Inter Caetera, a papal bull dated 1493, which granted to the catholic monarch’s King Ferdinand II of Aragon, and Queen Isabella I of Castile all lands to the “west and south”. Meaning that the Eastern part of present-day day-Brazil would be ruled by the Portuguese, and the rest of the New World would be ruled by the Spaniards.

Letter from Michelangelo to Pope Julius II
Any handwritten material by Michelangelo is pretty much non-existent, but there’s one spectacular letter at the Vatican Archive where Michelangelo wrote to Pope Julius II. Michelangelo warned the pope that the Vatican guards may leave their jobs since they weren’t paid during the last three months.

Bartolomeu de Gusmão design sketch
The Portuguese priest Bartolomeu de Gusmão was a revolutionary in terms of lifting gas airship design. He spent his life studying how objects could float in the air. De Gusmão made multiple design sketches for King John V of Portugal, and one of them ended up in the Vatican Archive, which is today considered to be priceless since no other examples exist.

Bartolomeu de Gusmão’s Figure de la Barque inventée en 1709 (Public domain)

Letters to Pope Pius IX from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, respectively
During the height of the American Civil War in 1863, both the Union leader Abraham Lincoln and the Confederate leader Jefferson Davis wrote a letter to Pope Pius XI, asking for his support. Interestingly, Lincoln didn’t mention violence in the country, while Davis detailed the violence and horror.

Pius IX by Adolphe Braun (Public domain)

Documents from the trial of Galileo Galilei
Today, there’s no discussion about whether the world is flat or round and if the world is the center of the universe. But in the 15th century, it sure was a hot topic. Galileo Galilei was a leading figure at the time who firmly believed that the world was not the center of the universe, which was against the church’s beliefs. To have such thoughts against the church was punishable, hence various trials against scientists. The most famous of its kind is arguably the trial of Galileo Galilei. The Vatican Archive holds complete documentation from that infamous trial.

Galileo Galilei by Justus Suttermans (Public domain)

Papal Bull from Pope Leo X that excommunicated Martin Luther
Lastly, another example of a genuinely significant manuscript is the 1521 papal bull in which Pope Leo X unofficially launched the Reformation since Martin Luther was excommunicated from the catholic church. The bull, entitled Decet Romanum Pontificem, is historically significant since it laid the foundation of Christianity as we know it today.

Decet Romanum Pontificem (Public domain)

Another interesting rule of the Vatican Archives is that all documents related to a Pope are classified as top-secret until 75 years have passed since the pope’s death. In ten years from now, more precisely in 2033, the documents of Pope Pius XII will be declassified, which may consist of many interesting new details since Pius XII was pope during the Second World War, and there’s been said that the pope was secretly involved in trying to execute Adolf Hitler in 1943. To have that confirmed would be incredibly interesting.

Something that’s even more interesting, which could revolutionize everything we know about Christianity, is if the archive holds any untold information about Jesus Christ or Mary Magdalene. It isn’t easy to answer if such information is ever revealed, but time will tell – or maybe not.

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The article is written by Alexander Bitar, an internationally acclaimed dealer of high-end collectibles, owner of Alexander Bitar History. Based in Stockholm and Beverly Hills, some of Alexander Bitar’s specialties are entertainment and historical memorabilia, vintage luxury watches, autographs, and important manuscripts.

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