The upper second floor of the Vatican Secret Archives where the diplomatic correspondence of the Holy See, formed by the Archives of the Secretariat of State and various papal legations, is preserved in specially-built cabinets of the VII Century (Photo copied from The Vatican Secret Archives: The Past)
Today it is impossible to quantify the exact amount of letters, reports, documents, protocols, minutes, etc. in every stage of preparation, which are contained in the secret archives. What we do know is that since the papacy of Innocent III (1198), when the existence of the Vatican Secret Archives really began, it has accumulated documents of seven centuries. There is said to be 60,000 volumes, cassettes, and bundles. Within the cassettes are frequently many dozens of separate documents. In the bundles of Acts, from 100 to 200 letters with their enclosures are occasionally found; while the huge folio volumes of the registers of the fourteenth century contain as many as 2000 documents and more (The Vatican Palace, as a Scientific Institute).
Many of the documents contain important historical material not just about the Roman Catholic Church but also documenting the history of some nations. This makes the Vatican Secret Archives one of the most important centres of historical research in the world. For many years the Vatican Secret Archives were closed to the public. Today it is possible as a research scholar to access the documents of the secret archives, however there are strict rules governing the access of the material and not everyone can enter.
As this research project is about the history of the Vatican Secret Archives I am presenting my findings in a timeline format. The history of the Vatican Secret Archives begins as early as apostolic times…
TIMELINE – MAJOR EVENTS IN THE HISTORY OF THE VATICAN SECRET ARCHIVES
Prior to XIII Century –
Archives were officially begun to be kept from IV Century when the Church of Rome was officially recognized. Only a few early church documents remain as up until XI century there were many losses due to the use of fragile papyrus and due to the many moves of the popes and upheavals in history. Nearly all of the archival materials were lost. One of the earliest documents to survive is the LIBER DIURNUS ROMANORUM PONTIFICUM . This is a set of three manuscripts which are thought to have been copied from VIII to IX Century. Some of the text in one of these manuscripts is thought to date back to the fifth century (Documents belonging to history).
Liber Diurnus codex (image copied from Documents belonging to history)
According to Sladen (1907), the Popes began the systematic storage of Archives from the time of Pope Damasus (366-384). Since then, the archives moved around following the various residences of the Popes. The archives were moved from the beginning of the VII Century to the Lateran Palace where it was considered more convenient as it was closer to where discussions were held. The Lateran Palace was the official residence of the Popes for more than one thousand years prior to the Papacy being moved to Avignon in 1309. Thus many private and important documents related to the Church were kept here. The original Lateran palace was subsequently destroyed by fire during the time the Popes were at Avignon.
1198 – The existence of the Vatican Archives really began under Pope Innocent III who began to preserve documents in a single Vatican Archive (History of the Vatican Secret Archive, Franklin Hotel, Rome).
1309 to 1378 – During this period, the Popes resided in Avignon. On return to Rome after this period, many of the papal documents were lost.
XV Century -
The most sensitive documents relating to the protection and rights of the Papacy and Roman Catholic Church were kept at Castel S. Angelo. This was made into an Archive by Sixtus IV (1471-1484) who founded the Vatican Library. At this time the Vatican Library contained a bibliotheca secreta (Secret Library) which was to become part of the Vatican Secret Archives (History of the Secret Archive, Franklin Hotel Rome). In 1798 the Archive of Castel S. Angelo was transferred to the Vatican Secret Archive where it is now “one of its most precious fonds”(The Archive of Castel S. Angelo, Vatican Secret Archives Website).
Castel Sant'Angelo (Image from Planetware)
XVII Century –
1610 – The current Vatican Secret Archives was established by Paul V Borghese. It was under his orders that the three halls next to the Secret Library were earmarked for development into a new archive, into which he transferred the registers of the papal bulls from Innocent III onwards, the books of the Camera and collections of the documents up to the papacy of Pius V (The Vatican Secret Archives: The Past). Between 1611 and 1613, Paul V had the cardinal librarian Bartolomeo Cesi oversee the construction of the new Vatican Secret Archives. These three halls known as the Paoline rooms were renovated and decorated with frescoes of scenes depicting gestures of donations to the Holy See by various European Sovereigns. Paul V invested large sums of money to perfecting and repairing of the materials (New Advent. The Vatican Palace as a Scientific Institute). The first inventory of the Archive was made in 1615 (History of the Secret Archive, Franklin Hotel Rome).
Paul V (1605-1621). Founder of Modern Archives. This picture is located in the rooms of the 'piano nobile' of the Archives. (Image from Vatican Secret Archives, The Title).
XVIII Century –
In the first half of this century the Archival documents were put in order for the first time.
1751 -1772. Cardinal Guiseppe Garampi, who was appointed Prefect of the Archives at the time, was the instigator of the proposal to put the Archives into a semblance of order. Garampi is credited with creating the famous Card index. This was to help with his project of documenting the history of all the episcopates and churches of the world (The Schedario Garampi, Vatican Secret Archives website). Garampi was a committed bibliophile who carried out many repairs and urged many acquisitions, deposits and transfers of archival material. During this period the archives grew considerably. Garampi also was responsible for bringing together all separate Archives and uniting them under the one roof within the Vatican Palace.
1783 – The papal archives that remained at Avignon were taken to the Vatican and transferred to the Secret Archives.
1798 – The Archives of Castel S. Angelo were transferred for safety reasons to the Vatican Secret Archives.
XIX Century –
During this century the Archives suffered several upheavals at the hands of Napoleon and later, the creation of the Italian State, both events leading to the seizure of the Archives from the Papal supremacy.
1810. In February 1810, Napoleon ordered that all the Archives of the Holy See were to be transported to Paris. His wish was to create a great central archive in Reims but this was later changed to Paris. Over the course of the next few years a total of 3,239 chests of Archival material were transported by wagon to Paris where they ended up being stored in the Archives Nationales at the Palaise Soubise. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, the archives were ordered back to the Vatican. The Vatican could not afford the high costs involved to transport the goods, so many documents considered to be of lesser value were left behind or destroyed. Between 1815-1817 only 2,200 chests of material were returned (Bentley historical library, University of Michigan website). During the time the documents were in Paris, the imperial archivists divided the vast amount of material into 16 alphabetical classes and labelled the boxes, volumes and envelopes with their corresponding letters. Today evidence of this alphabetical labelling is still apparent. Upon return the documents had been put in disarray and to this day not all the items returned from Paris are in the right order. (Vatican Archives Website, The transfer of the Vatican Secret Archives to Paris and their return back to the Holy See).
A volume with its respective assignation letter (the letter Q), introduced by Archivists of the Napolean empire (image from Vatican Archives Website, The transfer of the Vatican Secret Archives to Paris and their return back to the Holy See)
By 1881, the Secret Archives had grown to occupy the three rooms of the ‘piano nobile’ next to the Vatican Library and another six rooms on the second floor.
On January 1st 1881, Pope Leo XIII allowed scholars free access to the Vatican Secret Archives. This was seen as a way to answer critics of the Church by opening the Archives for the world to see. This allowed the Vatican Secret Archives to become one of the most important historical research centres in the world.
In 1892 a large part of Datoria Apostolica Archives were transferred from the Lateran Palace to the Vatican Secret Archives along with Bull registers of the Chancery since 1389 and the registers of the petitions since 1417.
XX Century –
During the twentieth century, the Archives saw more important arrivals. These included the modern part of the archives of the Secretariat of State, archives of the Briefs Secretariat, of the Roman Rota, of various Congregations (Consistorial, of Bishops and Regulars, of Sacraments, of Rites, of the Council, etc.), of the Apostolic Palace, of the Vatican Council I, of various Nunciatures (especially starting from 1971) and of some Roman noble families linked to the history of the Holy See (Borghese, Boncompagni, Rospigliosi, Ruspoli, Marescotti, Montoro, etc.). Previously many private Papal documents were left to the families of the Popes after their deaths. Many of these documents have since been donated to the Vatican Secret Archives.
XXI Century -
The twenty first century as seen the addition of further archives to the Secret Archives, such as the addition of the entire archives of the Vatican Council in 2000.
On 16th February 2003, Pope John Paul II granted access to scholars to documents kept in the archives of the Section for State Relations, of the Secretariat of State (formerly the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs) and in the archives of the Apostolic Nunciature in Munich and Berlin, regarding the relations between the Holy See and Germany in the period between 1922 and 1939.
The facilities in the Vatican Secret Archives continues to grow. Today there are 'two reading rooms, admitting about 1500 scholars from over 60 Countries every year, an index room, an internal library, a laboratory for preservation, restoration and bookbinding, a laboratory for the restoration and the study of seals, a laboratory for photography and digital reproduction, a data processing centre and a computer laboratory, and an administration service' (The Vatican Secret Archives Today, Vatican Secret Archives website).
Image (left) : A view of the first room of the Piano Nobile
Image (right) : The Leo XIII Hall
All images copied from Vatican Secret Archives website)