The Secret Archives of the Vatican

Millions of documents spanning across 12 centuries is what waits behind the doors of the Vatican Apostolic Archive. Find out more here!

Vatican Secret Archives

History of the Secret Archives

When one thinks of the Vatican Secret Archives, images of mysterious documents and hidden secrets are conjured up, however, this may not be all that can be found in one of the grandest collection of historical documents. The Archives translates in Latin to Archivum Secretum but contrary to popular belief actually has little to do with the English meaning of the word ‘secret’. In fact, the Latin word ‘secretum’ refers more to something being private or personal rather than mysterious. The Pope owns the archives till his death or resignation, whic houses notable letters and documents dating back to the 8th century. The Secret Archives is home to the largest collection of Catholic books, documents and doctrine in the world, and boasts letters from famous figures such as Abraham Lincoln and Mary Queen of Scots.

Who can visit the archives?

In 1881, Pope Leo XIII opened the archives to only serious scholars, believing that common people shouldn’t be allowed to view the notes exchanged and written by nobility or the Holy See. This meant that amateur historians nor students could ever view the documents. Scholars are to have their credentials renewed every 6 months and are only permitted to view up to 3 folders a day by choosing from a catalogue of items written in Italian or Latin. No photography is allowed in the study rooms so most spend their time writing up notes on a computer.

To mark the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the collection of the Vatican Secret Archives in 2012, an exhibition called Lux in Arcana was opened to curious members of the public who could view 100 documents. While this only scratches the surface of the 80 kilometres of shelves in the archives, it was still a momentous occasion.

The current Pope Francis has proclaimed that next year the Vatican will be allowing access of documents found in the Secret Archives relating to Pope Pius XII and his connection to Hitler through World War II. This comes after much scrutiny that Pope Pius XII was working with the Nazi’s and the controversial silence from the Pope on the persecution of Jews at the hands of Hitler.

What can be found in the secret archives?

Last letter from Mary Queen of Scots

Notes from the trial against the 17th century scientist Galileo who like many in his field were beginning to question the Church’s view that the Earth did not move are housed in the archives. A trial that led to Galileo being put under house arrest for the rest of his days.

The Papal Bull was written by Pope Leo X, a document excommunicating Martin Luther from the Catholic Church. A direct result of Luther’s 95. Theses which set out to condemn the practices of the Church. The impact of this was the Reformation period, leading to the creation of the Lutheran Church.

A plea from Mary Queen of Scots months before her execution, asking for Pope Sixtus V to assist in helping her not lose her life and to free her of the prison cell she was in. As the Pope decided not to intervene, she was executed in 1587.

The oldest document in the existence of the archives is on a loose parchment page, indicating a donation to a church in Venice from 809 CE.

A Papal Bull from 1493 written by Alexander VI who splits the new world, giving Spain more control of other lands and effectively splitting Spain and Portugal.

The most famous letter in the archives is the request of Henry VIII who needed an annulment from wife Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. The letter was supported by the signatures of 85 clergymen, including the Archbishop of Canterbury however, the Pope denied the request which was worded as a direct threat to the Church. Indeed, after the request was not approved, Henry VIII began the Church of England, so he could go ahead and give himself a divorce.

Other secret rooms in the Vatican that you can see today

Vatican Grottoes

While the majority of us won’t be able to see the Vatican Secret Archives in our lifetime, there are some lesser known areas of the Vatican that you can visit instead. St. Peter’s Tomb for example, which is in the Vatican Necropolis. Many don’t realise that you are able to visit the Necropolis which holds tombs from Christians and Pagans from when Constantine’s first temple rested on the site. You’ll need to contact the excavations office to see on what days they are allowing access to the general public, however it’s well worth a visit.

The Vatican Grottoes are open at all times and includes the tombs of saints, monarchs and Popes that have passed through the Catholic Church. Many don’t realise that you can access this area however it’s nicely located right below the basilica itself.

One of the nicest altars in the Vatican is the altar of the crucifixion of St Peter. It is supposedly the area in which St. Peter was crucified upside down making it a special and iconic must-see sight.

The Bramante Staircase is another of the special areas where it’s only opened to some visitors, and you’ll have to take a tour to be granted access. The modern Bramante Staircase, a double helix in design was constructed in 1932 and is a beautiful replica of the 1505 original, named after architect Donato Bramante. Another usually off-limits room is the Niccoline Chapel, only accessible on certain tours in the Apostolic Palace. With frescoes lining the small room from floor to ceiling by Fra Angelico.

Related article: What should you wear to the Vatican City?

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