Vatican Secret Archives

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The Vatican Secret Archives (Latin: Archivum Secretum Vaticanum), located in the Vatican City, is the central repository for all of the acts promulgated by the Holy See. These archives also contain the state papers, correspondence, papal account books, and many other documents which the church has accumulated over the centuries. In the 17th century, under the orders of Paul V, the Secret Archives were separated from the Vatican Library, where scholars had some very limited access to them, and remained absolutely closed to outsiders until 1881, when Leo XIII opened them to researchers, of whom now more than a thousand examine its documents each year.

The word "secret" in the title "Vatican Secret Archives" does not have the modern meaning: it indicates instead that the archives are the Pope's own, not those of a department of the Roman Curia. The word "secret" was used in this sense also in phrases such as "secret servants", "secret cupbearer", "secret carver".

The Vatican Secret Archives have been estimated to contain 52 miles (84 km) of shelving, and there are 35,000 volumes in the selective catalogue alone. "Indexes must be consulted in the Index Room and replaced in their original location. Publication of the indexes, in part or as a whole, is forbidden. The Archives support their own photographic and conservation studios.
Vatican Secret Archives - THE  BORGIAS   wikiFrom 1198 onwards, more complete archives exist, though documentation is a little scanty before the 13th century. Since that time, the documentation includes items such as King Henry VIII of England's request for a marriage annulment, (pictured left letter with the seal of English Lords for the annulment of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragon) and letters from Michelangelo.

The roots of the history of the archives of the Roman Pontiffs reach way back in time, linking up with the very origin, nature, activities and development of the Roman Church itself. Right from the apostolic times, the Popes carefully preserved the manuscripts concerning the exercise of their activities. This collection of manuscripts was kept in the scrinium Sanctae Romanae Ecclesiae that usually followed the Popes in their various residences, but the fragility of the papyrus, normally used at the papal chancery until the 11th Century, the transfers and the political upheavals nearly caused the total loss of all the archival material preceding Innocent III.

Vatican Secret Archives - THE  BORGIAS   wikiFrom the 11th Century onwards, when the Roman Pontiff and his Curia gained a central role, the number of offices of the Curia grew, as well as the number of archives, and in the 11th Century the most precious documents were taken to Castel Sant Angelo. After several projects for the creation of a main archive of the Church, Pope Paul V gave the order to transfer the registers of the Papal bulls and briefs, the books of the Camera and the collections of documents up to the papacy of Pius V included, to the three halls next to the Secret Library (the so-called Sale Paoline). This gave life to a new archive pro privata Romanorum pontificum commoditate and ad publicam studiorum utilitatem, for a total of just over three thousand pieces, of which the most important part included the registers of the papal bulls from Innocent III onwards, (Registra Vaticana). The new archive was called Vatican Secret Archives.

During the 17th Century, the Archives increased considerably, especially under Urban VIII (the Bulls of Sixtus IV and Pius V; the papers of the Briefs Secretariat from Alexander VI to Pius V, the abundant documentation contained in the Armaria XXXIX-XLV; the books of the Apostolic Camera from Avignon, where they had remained after the end of the Schism; the papers of the Council of Trent), and under Alexander VII, who chose to place the diplomatic correspondence of the Secretariat of State on a specific floor of the Apostolic Palace.

In the first half of the 18th Century, during the prefectures of Pietro Donnino De Pretis and Filippo Ronconi, the papers kept in the Archives were put into order for the first time, and many fonds still maintain that same order even today. Between 1751 and 1772, the history of the Archives is dominated by Giuseppi Garampi, the main creator, besides other things, of the famous Card Index named after him. He carried out, or urged, many acquisitions, deposits and transfers of archival material (for instance, the Albani, Carpegna and Pius fonds, as well as the 1,300 books of the Camera).

Vatican Secret Archives - THE  BORGIAS   wikiIn 1783, all that remained at Avignon was taken to the Vatican, with the series of bull registers, called Registra Avenionensia; in 1798, the Archives of Castel Sant Angelo were also taken there (Garampi was already both archivist of the Vatican Secret Archives and of Castel Sant Angelo), which included also 81 documents with gold seals (in gold leaf, in solid gold, gold and silver plated caskets) and among which stood out for its precious ancient value a diploma by Friedrich Barbarossa (Frederick I, Holy Roman Emperor), dating back to 1164 (Death of Friedrich Barbarossa pictured left from the Saxon Chronicles).

In 1810, by order of Napoleon, the archives of the Holy See were taken to Paris, and then brought back to the Vatican between 1815 and 1817, thus causing great losses.

When the Italian troops conquered Rome in 1870, the archives found outside the Vatican walls were confiscated by the newborn Italian State, thus constituting the core of the new State Archives of Rome.

In 1881, thanks to the generosity of Leo XIII, scholars were allowed free access to the Vatican Secret Archives, thus becoming one of the most important historical research centres in the world.

Vatican Secret Archives - THE  BORGIAS   wikiIn 1892, a large part of the Dataria Apostolic archives were transferred from the Lateran Palace (pictured right) to the Vatican Archives, along with the bull registers of the Chancery since 1389 (Registra Avenionensia, the ancient Archivum Bullarum) and the Registers of the Petitions since 1417. In the 20th Century, as well as the modern part of the archives of the Secretariat of State, arrived the archives of the Briefs Secretariat, of the Roman Rota, of various Congregations (Consistorial, of Bishops and Regulars, of Sacraments, of Rites, of the Council, etc.), of the Apostolic Palace, of the Vatican Council I, of various Nunciatures (especially starting from 1971) and of some Roman noble families linked to the history of the Holy See (Borghese, Boncompagni, Rospigliosi, Ruspoli, Marescotti, Montoro, etc).

In the year 2000, the entire archive of the Vatican Council II was transferred there thanks to Paul VI who liberalized it to the access of scholars beyond the usual limitations set for the consultation of the archives of the Holy See (January 1922, death of Benedict XV).

Below is a letter from Pope Paul III to Michelangelo regarding the Sistine Chapel.

Rome, 1535 September 1st
Paper volume, mm. 435x293, ff. 515, bound in parchment; on the back, among the bands, an element of the coat of arms of Innocent III and above: Pauli III brevium minutae anni MDXXXV mens. jul. aug. sept.

Vatican Secret Archives - THE  BORGIAS   wikiASV, Arm. XL, 52, f. 31r Among Paul III’s (1534-1549) minutes of the briefs, two of them regard Michelangelo Buonarroti (Arm. XL, 52 f. 30 bis e f. 31 bis). This minute of the brief the pope sent to the Florentine artist on the 1st of September 1535, is particularly interesting. As everyone knows, after his father’s death and due to the new political situation in Florence, Michelangelo left the Tuscan city in 1534 and moved to Rome, where Clement VII, who had quarrelled with the artist in the past, but was willing to protect his genius, commissioned him the fresco of Last Judgement in the Sistine Chapel: “In that period – Vasari writes – the pope (Clement VII) wanted to commission him the façades of the Chapel of Sixtus, where Michelangelo had already painted the vault for the pope’s nephew Julius II; on the main façade, where there the altar is, Clement VII wanted the Last Judgement to be painted, so as to show history what the art of painting was capable to do”. After a short period, Pope Clement VII died (25th September 1534) and his successor, Paul III, confirmed the commission of the Last Judgement to Michelangelo and with this brief he granted the artist, who had already started planning his work of art, all the honours and an adequate pay.

After having praised the painter, called “the glory of our century”, the true heir of classical art and a brilliant innovator (from the second line: Excellentia virtutis tuae *** in sculptura et pictura tum in omni architectura quibus te et nostrum seculum ampliter exornasti, veteres non solum adequando, sed congestis in te omnibus quae singula illos admirandos reddebant prope superando...), the pope ordered Michelangelo to be register in the role of papal “familia” and thus receive all the due honours. He also established that, for the fresco of the Last Judgement and for all the works of art he would commission him in the future, Michelangelo would enjoy a life annuity of 1200 gold scudi a year and the half of the sum (600 scudi), as agreed in this document, would come from the incomes from the rights of the passage across the River Po, near Piacenza, until then owned by the late Francesco Burla (the papal provision from line 14: Et insuper *** nos tibi pro depingendo a te pariete altaris Cappellae nostrae pictura et historia ultimi iudicii, ad laborem et virtutem tuam in hoc et caeteris operibus in Palatio nostro a te, si opus fuerit, faciendis, remunerandos et satisfaciendos introitum et redditum mille et ducentorum scutorum auri annuatim ad vitam tuam promiserimus, prout etiam promittimus per presentes, Nos ut dictum opus a te incohari coeptum prosequaris et perficias, et si quo alio in opere voluerimus nobis inservias, Passum Padi prope Placentiam, quem quondam Io(hannes), Franciscus Burla dum viveret obtinebat, *** solitis emolumentis, iurisdictionibus, honoribus et oneribus suis pro parte dicti introitus tibi promissi, videlicet pro sexcentis scutis auri [...] ad vitam tuam auctoritate apostolica tenore presentium tibi concedimus [...]). Michelangelo began to receive this new benefit thanks to his proxy, Agostino da Lodi, who wrote to Michelangelo from Piacenza on the 30th September 1536 saying: “This is to tell you that today I have taken possession of the passage across the River Po on your behalf, as you asked me to do”.

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