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The Vatican Library

Updated on December 7, 2017
Deborah Minter profile image

Deborah is a research enthusiast! She takes special interest in this world's ancient mysteries.

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The Vatican library is an accumulation of knowledge that the church has collected over centuries, it is not open to the public. No one knows the contents of the entire library. The library houses miles of ancient manuscripts, and only one person is allowed to check books out, and that is the pope.

If the shelves of the Vatican Library were placed end to end, they would stretch thirty one miles.
If the shelves of the Vatican Library were placed end to end, they would stretch thirty one miles.

History

During the renascence period, books were generally owned by churches, monasteries, and wealthy individuals. Popes collected books for their own private library. In the fourteenth century Pope Nicholas the fifth, founded what is known today as the Vatican library. His plan was to create a “public library”, for the use of scholars. He purchased volumes and employed copyist to copy original manuscripts that could not be bought from their owners. The Pope personally oversaw works done by copiers, included in the collection of the library. He invited Italian and exiled byzantine scholars to Rome and commissioned them to translate the Greek classics into Latin for his library. When printing was invented, a collection of printed books was included. Many of the manuscripts were bound in crimson and fastened with silver clasps. Pope Nicholas died before his plan for a public library was established. Nicholas was the first Pope to leave his library as a central beneficiary of his patronage.

Pope Sixtus established a permanent area to house the volumes, records and secret archives in the Vatican palace, and called it the Palatine library. Shelves, desks, benches, and presses were added, and the director of the library prepared the first catalogue of the collection.

The reading rooms were prepared to accommodate scholars. There were frescos surrounding the library and elaborate wooden benches, where most books were chained, a practice commonly done in that time. The library grew over time, collection of books and manuscripts filled the hallways and adjoining rooms. Construction was done to accommodate the expanding library. Purchases and donations were added to the library. In the eighteenth century the Heidelberg library was transferred to Rome.

The public use to be permitted access only to the reading rooms. Scholars were allowed to borrow volumes up until the seventeenth century. Books that were borrowed and not returned in a timely fashion were accounted for, if persuasion by librarians failed, the pope himself would have to send out a recall notice.

When reformation policies by the Vatican took place, the regulations of the library changed, access too many books were prohibited and protestant scholars were not allowed into the library. Pope Leo formally opened the library to scholars in 1883. Father Franz Ehle the prefect of the library, revised regulations in a more stringent form than in the past.

The books were chained to benches in the reading rooms of the library in the fifteenth century.
The books were chained to benches in the reading rooms of the library in the fifteenth century.

Events

There has been controversy surrounding some material that was added to the library. The first books of “Annals of Tacitus,’’ were known to have been stolen from the monastery of Corvey. In the early sixteenth century, Pope Leo was able to acquire them. In 1515 he made printed copies of the manuscript, and sent a set of the ‘printed’ books specially bound, to the Abbot of Corvey.

In 1809 Napoleon Bonaparte arrested Pius 7th and ordered contents of the Vatican archives moved to Paris. Three thousand chests of materials were shipped. After Napoleon was defeated in 1814, it took three years to move the materials back to the Vatican. Only one fourth of documents successfully returned to the library.

In 1995 professor of art at Ohio State University stole two leaves from a medieval manuscript once owned by Pebarch. Father Boyle was criticized for allowing him special access and was dismissed from the library in 1997. The professor was eventually sentenced to fourteen months prison time.

A Persian manuscript preserved in the library.
A Persian manuscript preserved in the library.

Present access to the Library

No one has complete access to the library. There are strict regulations to those granted access and the content allowed to be seen, photos are prohibited. Undergraduate students are not allowed entry, only scholars are permitted. Scholars must have a special letter of recommendation by a recognized institute of research, or by a qualified person in the field of research, and those allowed entry must submit name and information. There is no browsing, individuals are only allowed the specific document they have requested, and only permitted three folders per day. The researcher is not permitted a jacket or cell phone, and he is accompanied at all times as he observes the documents.

Sister hall to the Vatican Library.
Sister hall to the Vatican Library.

The Manuscripts in the Library

No one knows all the contents within the library, there is an estimated two million printed books. Over centuries the Vatican has collected treasures. Some manuscripts date back 2000 years. In antiquity there were collectors and even spies dedicated to the task of coveting precious manuscripts or important documents for the collection of the library. Records were stored in the library, signed documents and letters are found to have been kept in the library. There is material in the library included from faraway lands, such as Chinese and Persian manuscripts. There are Cookbooks and love letters carefully preserved within the collection. The materials used for ancient volumes was common in antiquity, a manuscript’s parchment was made of treated animal skin. Restoration workers work with the crumbling books and repair documents with old expensive ink that has since turned to acid and eats away at the parchment. There is an index system dating from the eighteenth century. Letters include correspondence from Genghis Khan’s grandson, Mozart, and Adolf Hitler. Manuscripts known to exist in the library have been viewed by scholars or recounted in books published on the manuscripts made public by the Vatican. There is a digitized project by the Vatican to order e-book versions of some of this precious history. In 2012 The Vatican library celebrated its fourteen hundredth anniversary, by holding an exhibition of 100 selected documents from the library. The Documents within the library are a true mark of history from the time period they were created, or person they are written by.


  • The 1493 letter by Columbus of his description of the new world.

  • Henry the eighth love letters to Anne Berlin signed with a little heart. Henry the eighth unfortunately later had her beheaded.

  • The 1612 Galileo Galilei diagrams of sun spots and diagram of the sun, depicted as the center of the universe.

  • Transcripts of the trial of the Knights Templar.

  • Letters to Pope Pius ninth, from Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis in 1863.

  • Letter by Michelangelo, to Pope Julius the second.

  • The library holds a Collection of ancient coins. The kind Judas was said to accept, to betray Jesus Christ.

  • A very old World Map, made fifty years before Columbus discovered the new world.

  • Hebrew manuscript dated between 1451 and 1475.

  • Fifth century old- Pope Leo the tenth, music composition written on parchment of treated animal skin.

A Letter written by Michelangelo, is preserved in the Vatican Library.
A Letter written by Michelangelo, is preserved in the Vatican Library.

Conpiracies

There has been many conspiracy theories and suspicion surrounding the library. The Vatican has stated that the library is not secret, but ‘private’. The restriction has left many wondering what is within the walls of the library, there is no browsing after all. It is an estimated 50 miles of shelving, though the exact size of the library is in question. It is known that if the shelves were placed end to end, they would stretch 31 miles. Anything after 1939 is strictly restricted to researchers and off limits to the public. There have been rumors of what else is in the library and conspiracy theories include banking scandals, corruption, and biblical secrets. The library is so private, that no one outside the Vatican knows what is inside the library. There have been claims that if evidence holding biblical secrets existed, it would be in the church’s Vatican library.

  • There are many theories involving Jesus. There is suspicion that there is a portrait of Jesus hidden in the library and text authored by Jesus Christ himself kept intact within the library’s walls. The suspicion comes from speculation that Jesus did in fact author religious writings, and that the Vatican has not made them public.

  • Nazi Germany! The Vatican had personal dealings with Hitler and Nazi Germany. Though this is all speculation, it has flamed the fire that documents dated after 1939 are absolutely restricted. The time frame of these document correlate with World War 2. This conspiracy theory accuses the Vatican simultaneously of non-involvement and secret involvement with Nazi Germany during World War 2.

  • Missing Chapters of the Bible. This particular theory is close to the realm of reality, since it is not unlikely that The Vatican holds original and complete works of the bible. They openly share that they hold ancient parts of the New Testament in its original language. The library holds old Hebrew text as well. The modern versions of the bible have been edited, and the Vatican does preserve parts of the bible no longer included or presented in its complete forms. There is suspicion that the library holds ancient religious text, and researchers are disturbed that such ancient documents would not be available openly. The accusation is that the library is deliberately hiding missing chapters of bible. Theories have included hidden manuscripts involving original text of the bible, written works by Jesus’s disciples or works by Jesus himself. The Vatican has been suspected of keeping ancient Biblical knowledge secret, and the library has been thought of as a likely candidate to house such secrets. There is suspicion that ancient text that could be damaging to the church is kept hidden in the library.

  • There has been a rumor that the library is holding the largest oldest collection of pornography in the world. Many suspect sinister intentions with holding such material. This is just a rumor as of yet.

  • The most popular theory is that records of Jesus’s descendants are kept in the library. It is believed by some researchers that Jesus was married. This theory is highly controversial. Some years back a document of a family tree relating to Jesus was found. It was never verified if it was a hoax or authentic, but it has caused suspicion that the Vatican library is holding records of Jesus’s descendants.

  • Ufos! There is evidence of extraterrestrial life hidden in the library. Some think the church is hiding evidence of alien life. At one time it was deemed impossible for alien life to exist by the church. The church’s stance on this topic has changed over the years. In 2008 The Vatican claimed it was possible that alien life may exist. In 2009 the church announced advice and methods of how to deal with alien life, should that event occur. This theory has even purported that the pope holds personal correspondence with alien life forms.

Fifth Century music composition, written by Pope Leo the tenth.
Fifth Century music composition, written by Pope Leo the tenth.

The Vatican Library

No one knows what is in the library. Documents date back to the 8th century. Except for occasional exceptions, Journalist, students and amateur historians are barred. There is a digitized and index form of cataloging in modern times, yet not everything within the walls of the library is catalogued. Manuscripts have been stashed in the miles of shelving and no browsing is allowed. The manuscripts are written in many languages such as Italian, Latin, Persian, Hebrew and old Aztec writing. What everyone agrees upon, is that the library is full of a collection of treasures, and secrets. Some of those secrets have been made public, if more are made public someday, perhaps answers to questions many seek will be answered. Until then the library is surrounded by mystery.

Cited Sources:

https://www.thegaurdian.com/world/2012/feb/28vatican-secret-archive-papal-documents

“What is the Vatican hiding in its archives” youtube.com

mentalfloss.com/article/63850/15-historic-wonders-housed-vaticans-secret-archives

“Hidden Books in Vatican” film

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    • threekeys profile image

      Threekeys 3 months ago from Australia

      How fascinating! I would love to learn more about the Vatican Library. In fact I would LOVE to be looking at those 2 million ancient texts and secrets! I bet if we even just uncovered a couple of those library secrets it could really change our world in a big way. Interesting!

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