Vatican guide: Inside the world’s most secret city

Infiltrating the Vatican Library.

St Peter's Square.
St Peter’s Square.

Photograph by Thinkstock.

Everywhere I looked in Rome, I was shaken by the gruesome religious pageantry that accompanies the run-up to Easter. Just to get out my hotel’s front door, I had to squeeze past a life-size diorama of Jesus being nailed to the cross. I thought he looked down at me accusingly from his Crown of Thorns, already suspicious of my motives. The entire Via della Conciliazione leading to St. Peter’s was lined with bronze set-pieces of the Stations of the Cross, creating a fantasia of Christian suffering that would make even Mel Gibson shudder.* From there, I had to elbow through swarms of pilgrims with beatific grins and side-step the gauntlet of sacred souvenir vendors. (The Church of Rome has always been a master of merchandizing. Amongst all the bloodied crucifixes, the smiling face of Benedict XVI could be seen on everything from coffee mugs to key rings. They even sell Vatican baseball caps now. Check out vaticangift.com for the latest suggestions.)

It probably added to my feverish state of mind that I was staying a former medieval monastery, the Hotel Columbus. One of its floors, stuccoed with astrological symbols, was still the office for a religious military order that dated back to the First Crusade, the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulcher of Jerusalem. When I checked in and asked for a quiet room, the attendant laughed grimly. “Don’t worry, it will be quiet. Just you and the ghosts.” I kept getting lost in its maze of corridors, which were lined with portraits of wild-eyed saints. Whenever I opened the shutters of my monk’s cell, I looked out over a cobbled courtyard to a crumbling church. Nothing in my gaze was less than 500 years old. Even the breakfast room ceiling was covered with ancient frescos.

It was the perfect base for my mission: to infiltrate the secret Vatican.

* * *

The procession of frenzied pilgrims finally comes to a stop at the Porta di Sant’Anna, which is the Vatican’s business entrance. Under its carved stone curlicues, Swiss Guards in their jaunty berets patiently turn the streams of sightseers away, directing them instead to the Vatican Museums and St Peter’s Basilica, the two parts of the city that are open to the regular public. Only a handful of outsiders with specific appointments are ever allowed into the shadowy, silent world of the Secret City. I had a letter of introduction from New York University to the Vatican Library, the world’s oldest and most splendid research institution, which finally reopened last year after a three-year renovation.

Before I could get near the library, I was first ushered into a wood-paneled office, where a pair of bespectacled clerks sat behind an antique glass barrier, like bank tellers in a 1930s movie. This department is basically Vatican Immigration and Customs, which I like to think of as a Checkpoint Charlie, monitoring access to the world’s tiniest state. According to the 2011 census, there are only 572 citizens entitled to Vatican passports (540 of them male), but select workers and scholars are admitted daily.

I hoped to be one of them.

As I handed over my documents, I found myself inexplicably starting to sweat. In my misspent youth, I attended one of the last hard-line Irish Catholic schools, which had successfully instilled a blend of guilt and panic whenever I’m confronted with authority, and the Vatican brought the memories flooding back. But the clerk just shrugged and handed me a visitor’s pass with the Pope’s crest on it, which I clipped to my jacket.

“Through there?” I asked, pointing to a closed door at the other end of the room. The official gave me an Italian gesture of exasperation. What do you think?

I opened the door onto a laneway running along the stone ramparts of the Apostolic Palace. I was only a few feet up from where the Swiss Guards were standing sentinel, but now on the other side of the border. Suddenly, I felt a rush of euphoria. Inside Vatican City! It felt like a different plane of reality. In this rarefied world, the only Western theocracy, every scene seemed exotic. Clerics swept past in flowing black robes and crimson skullcaps, jabbering into their cellphones. Limousines disgorged monsignors from Ethiopia. Two nuns in a Volkswagen nearly ran me down. As I strolled towards the arched entrance of the Belvedere courtyard, I looked around for the Vatican gas station, for the Vatican supermarket, for the Vatican ATM, the world’s only bank machine with instructions in Latin.

The Vatican Library, it turned out, was a sumptuous blend of the medieval and digital ages. After a brief and surprisingly casual interview with the head librarian, a secretary took a digital photograph of me and printed a plastic reader’s card on the spot. I was directed along polished marble hallways and through automatic glass doors to the reader’s rooms, where magnificent vaulted ceilings dated from the 1500s. The library catalogues glowed from the screens of shiny Mac desktops, while pallid scholars sat at long wooden tables, hunched over illuminated manuscripts in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.

I took a pew in the back, too excited to start researching.

This revamped library, I discovered, was even Wi-Fi-enabled, so I logged on to my laptop and did a Facebook update, announcing that I had penetrated the Holy See.

At the age of 9, I was kicked off my home church’s team of altar boys because I couldn’t get the Mass choreography right. Now, something about being in the belly of the Vatican brought out the schoolboy in me. I logged on to youtube.com, and saw that even here in the Holy See, I could start streaming Showtime’s raunchy series on the Renaissance Papacy, The Borgias: One scene labeled “hot sex” between Juan Borgia and Sancia looked promising.*

A friend emailed back: “I dare you to log onto youporn.com.”

I looked around furtively. I was sitting in the last row of desks. At the click of a mouse, up sprang an eye-popping scene of acrobatic copulation.

Luckily, I’d remembered to mute my laptop.

* * *

For five and a half centuries, the Vatican Library has been a repository for some of the Western world’s rarest books and manuscripts, including ancient papyri and sensitive documents from the Vatican’s own bureaucracy.. Today, my interest lay with a notorious Inquisition volume that was composed from the years 1318 to 1325.

Known as the Fournier Register, it’s the greatest source we have for information on medieval sexual habits. It was created when Jacques Fournier, an ambitious French bishop, investigated a remote village in Languedoc for its unholy and licentious behavior. It seems that the peasants of this hamlet, Montaillou, were decidedly relaxed about their personal relationships, perhaps influenced by their heretical Cathar beliefs. (Cathars believed that sex was evil, even within the bounds of matrimony, but also that all sins could be forgiven on one’s deathbed, which often led, in practice, to a certain moral abandon.) The church decided to weed out the heresy and interrogate them about their most intimate carnal habits. This text later became famous when it was rediscovered in the 1970s by the French historian LeRoy Ladurie, who realized that the confessions gave a fresh image of the Middle Ages, with the villagers hopping in and out of one another’s beds like a Brazilian soap stars.

It took me a while to figure out the Vatican Library’s system, but eventually, to my amazement, the actual volume was soon hand-delivered to my desk. It was exquisitely handcrafted, bound in leather-covered wood and tied by ancient string. The subject heading read Super Crimine Heresis, “Regarding the Crime of Heresy.” I couldn’t quite believe they were handing me a 700-year-old original without asking me to wear archival gloves or be surrounded by Swiss Guards poised with halberds. I leafed through the vellum pages, enjoying the organic texture under my fingertips. The leaves were unevenly trimmed with natural holes in the calfskin, each one covered in Latin script, two columns per page. To me, it seemed an extraordinary privilege: I could easily imagine the darkened courtroom 700 years ago where tonsured scribes scrawled these pages.

I looked up the confession of one Grazide Lizier, who described how the village priest deflowered her in a barn as a teenager. (“With Pierre Clergue, I liked it,” she reasoned to the court. “And so it could not displease God. It was not a sin.”) A certain Arnaud de Verniolle declared that, after he became convinced that a prostitute gave him leprosy, he decided to begin “abusing little boys,” inviting them back to his rooms to see his art collection, then luring them into bed. Then there was the account of Béatrice de Planisolles, who made love to a vicar in a vineyard while her maid kept guard, and told the Inquisition that, in her experience, “priests are more lustful than other men.”

Grazide and Béatrice were released from the Inquisition prison wearing tunics emblazoned with the yellow cross, a sign that they were reformed heretics. The pedophile Arnaud, however, was sentenced to spend the rest of his life in chains on a diet of bread and water—not for his sexual behavior, as it happens, but for his theological beliefs.

Correction, Dec. 15, 2011: This article originally referred to the “Road of Consolation.” The Via della Conciliazione translates in English to the “Road of Reconciliation.”  (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Correction, Dec. 5, 2011: The article misidentified The Borgias as an HBO series. In fact it is a Showtime series. (Return to the corrected sentence.)