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from issue no. 03/04 - 2012

The Vatican Secret Archive

by Roberto Rotondo

A glimpse of the deposit of the Secret Archive

A glimpse of the deposit of the Secret Archive


When talking about the Vatican Secret Archive, one speaks of the modern archive of the Holy See established by Pope Paul V around 1610, on the site overlooking the Cortile del Belvedere, where it still is, though greatly enlarged. But the history of the archive of the Roman pontiffs is based in times far more remote, connecting with the origin, nature, activity and development of the Church itself.

The documentary patrimony preserved in the great deposits covers a time span of about twelve centuries (from the eighth to the twentieth century). Consisting of over six hundred archival collections, it covers eighty-five linear kilometers of shelves, placed, inter alia, in the ‘Bunker’, a room on two floors, housed in the basement of the Cortile della Pigna of the Vatican Museums. Since Pope Leo XIII, in 1881, opened its doors to scholars, the Vatican Secret Archive has become a center for historical research among the most important and famous in the world. To study its history and evolution more deeply we indicate the volume the Vatican Secret Archive by Monsignor Sergio Pagano (published by Gangemi, 2000). In the essay the long history of how the Archive was established is explained, the archives that it absorbed, the vicissitudes and transfers (such as the years when stationed at Castel Sant’Angelo or the forcible transfer of the Archive by order of Napoleon and its successive return to Rome).

Hundreds of historians from around the world ask to consult the Archive, which, however, also has its relevance in journalistic terms, as noted years ago by the famous Vatican expert Benny Lai, who wrote that the Archive can deepen the knowledge of the structure and working method of the Vatican offices, can penetrate its intimacy. The diplomatic correspondence between the Secretary of State and the nuncios, beyond the value of the topics discussed, in fact, illuminates the way of thinking and acting that the passing of years has not substantially changed. In addition the consultation of the documents preserved in the Archive not only serves to clarify the historical problems, big or small as they may be, to study from different angles the stages of the formation of Western civilization or the perennial underlying question of the relations between Church and State; sometimes from the old papers, which many insist on seeing as dead past, human events emerge that time could not sclerotize.

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