Vatican guide: The wonders inside the legendary Secret Archives

Galileo’s signature, the order excommunicating Martin Luther, and the other wonders I saw in the Vatican’s legendary “Secret Archives.”

The Vatican museums.
The Vatican Museums

Photograph by F. Bucher via Wikipedia.

What possessed the Vatican to call its most contentious reservoir of documents the “Secret Archives”? Don’t they realize that, to inquisitive outsiders, the name is like a red flag to a bull? Dr. Marco Grilli, the secretary to the prefecture of the archives, tried in vain to clarify: “The word secret is misleading,” he said. “Archivum Secretum means ‘private archive’ in Latin, rather than hidden. It contains the personal records of the popes. Not too many secrets here!”

The dozen of us gathered for the tour glanced at one another sideways. We knew better. Exploring the Secret Archive is an opportunity nobody turns down.

Founded in 1612 with documents dating back to the 8th century, the Secret Archives have always been the object of fascination. Napoleon absconded with the entire collection back to Paris after he conquered Rome, but it was returned after his defeat. In 1881, the first Catholic scholars were granted access to the reading room, and restrictions have been eased further over the last 10 years. Still, the interview process remains more stringent than the Vatican Library, because you have to specifically request documents—a difficult prospect, since only a fraction of the holdings have been catalogued, requiring constant guesswork, and no browsing is allowed. I managed to get into the reading room while researching my last book, and was able to call up assorted papal missives and medieval indulgences while lounging in the watery light of 17th-century windows.

But like everyone else who has worked here, I always wondered what really lay behind closed doors, in the stacks and passageways of the archives itself.

Then, in the summer of 2010, the Vatican announced publication of the first photographic book on the Secret Archives. In a peculiar move, behind-the-scenes access had been granted to a Belgian publisher named Paul van den Heuvel, whose previous coffee-table volume The Most Beautiful Wine Cellars in the World had caught Pope Benedict’s eye.

For months, I kept up correspondence with Dr. Grilli, begging for my own tour of the interior. Then, out of the blue, I was given approval. It seemed a group of Christian Hungarian scholars were also getting a VIP glimpse, and I could tag along.

Which is how I found myself standing in the Belvedere Courtyard with a cadre of waifish academics from Budapest, who looked like they had been nourished on tree roots. Grilli, in the unofficial uniform of all Vatican archivists—crisply tailored blue suit, hair cut short at back and sides, Clark Kent spectacles—ushered us upstairs into the archive’s index room. It was lined floor to ceiling with leather-bound indexes, each one a foot thick, giving it the haunted air of a medieval alchemist’s laboratory.

To begin the visit, Grilli offered an unexpected treat: We began climbing hundreds of steps up to the Vatican’s first astronomy tower, the 200-foot-high Tower of the Winds. It was built in 1578 for the pope’s astronomers to track the movements of the sun and stars, record the shifting directions of the wind, and generally confirm the Aristotlean vision of the heavens revolving around the earth. Because access is only via the Secret Archives, very few from the outside world set foot it in here.

At the top was a chamber bursting with color. Succulent frescos spread across the 30-foot-high walls, depicting the shipwreck of St. Paul in Malta (an act of divine meteorological manipulation), and the ceiling was painted with glittering stars. Etched into the floor were circles with the names of the winds, Tramontana, Sirocco, Ostro.

My eye was drawn to a coin-sized hole in the wall revealing a tiny circle of actual sky. Every March 21, Grilli explained, a ray of sunlight will point at noon on an eight-pointed rosette in the floor to mark the spring equinox.

Then we stepped out onto the balcony, today offering breathtaking views across Rome. Only St. Peter’s Basilica is higher.

“You could start a prosecco bar up here,” I suggested to Dr. Grilli.

He raised his eyebrows. “Espresso, maybe.”

* * *

It was time for the serious business to begin. We filed down marble steps encircling an antique cage elevator, into the subterranean chambers.

In Angels and Demons, Dan Brown imagines the Secret Archive as a series of titanium-lined rooms with bulletproof glass suitable for Dr. Evil’s lair. The reality is both more mundane and more exciting. At first, it all seemed like the sterile stacks of a college library—until I glimpsed the dates on the gray boxes: 1543, 1476, 1722. Then we passed rooms full of wooden shelves taken from the Castel Sant’Angelo, each one groaning under endless rows of leather-bound volumes. Thirty archivists are now employed full-time to catalog the sprawling shelves, which run to over 53 miles, Grilli tells us. “There are 7,000 volumes alone of supplicants’ letters to the Popes!”

We were soon gathered around an enormous desk in a concrete loading dock, where Grilli produced a series of priceless relics. First came an illuminated scroll from 1305, confirming the election of Clement V, with cardinals’ seals dangling on crimson ribbons. Next came the papal bull from Leo X excommunicating Martin Luther in 1521, thus instigating the Reformation. (“First he was given a warning, then he was cut off,” Grilli notes). There’s a 1530 letter from English peers begging the pope to annul the marriage of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon. (No dice; The result was the creation of the Church of England.) Just for good measure, Grilli opened a volume of transcripts from the trial of the Knights Templars, from 1307 to 1310, then some correspondence relating to the trial of Galileo, who was prosecuted by the Inquisition in 1633 for questioning the earth-centered vision of the universe approved by scripture. This chilly, neon-lit vault suddenly seemed like the crossroads of European history.

The Americas also have their moment, with letters to the pope from Confederate President Jefferson Davis in 1863 defending the South as a victim of northern aggression in the Civil War. Another telling correspondence was written on birch bark in 1887, by Canada’s Ojibwe Indians to Pope Leo XIII. It’s dated “where there is much grass, in the month of flowers” (May) and thanks “the Great Master of Prayer” (the pope) for sending “a custodian of prayer” (a bishop) to their tribe.

The Secret Archives’ new candor does have its limits, Grilli admitted: “This is the pope’s personal archive, so he can withhold any papers he deems fit,” he stressed. At the moment, scholars do not have access to anything dated after 1939—although Benedict has ordered that correspondence relating to Pius XII, the wartime pope accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust, finally be catalogued, with hopes for release by 2014.

As we filed out, Grilli added that the Secret Archives building itself won’t be opened to the public any time soon. Instead, to mark the archive’s 400th anniversary next year, around 100 manuscripts will finally see the light of day in an exhibition at the Capitoline Museums. The prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, Bishop Sergio Pagano, said in a press conference that some papers from the Second World War will be included, to defuse criticism of Pius XII by Jewish groups. The documents would show that Pius was “tormented” by his knowledge of the Holocaust, Pagano told reporters, and that, although he did not speak out openly against the Nazis, he “did a lot to defend those who suffered all over the place, and did a lot not just during the war but after the war.”

On the way out, I noticed some early merchandizing efforts from the Secret Archives stacked in a window—including pens with Galileo’s signature on them. It must have been copied it from his Inquisition confession, when he was forced to recant his views in 1633 and spend the rest of his life under house arrest. The papacy did admit that Galileo was wrongly convicted—in 1992.