A panorama of St Peter's Square

Digging into the secrets of the Vatican


A few months ago the Archivio Segreto Vaticano opened again after their traditional summer break, to the delight of the scholars that regularly gather there in search of unknown, interesting, surprising, or shocking documents. The archives are surrounded by an air of mystery, created partly by their name – the Vatican Secret Archives.  Christophe, a veteran of the archive who will soon be travelling back for MALMECC, remembers his first visit…

 

The first time I went to the Vatican was during the last year of my PhD thesis. I must admit that despite having visited a number of archives before that, I was very intimidated. It was the Vatican after all! Thankfully I had been briefed by an expert of the Archivio on how to do it right.

 

Elaborate gateway leading to the Vatican City

Porta Sant’Anna, Vatican City (Mattes)

As students are not usually allowed in, there is quite a list of documents to bring – a letter explaining why you wish to access the Archivio, a recommendation letter signed by your supervisor, proof that you have graduated (ideally a copy of your certificate), and a copy of your passport.  Then, you go to the Santa Anna gate, to the right of Bernini’s famous colonnade, and explain to the Swiss guards, (yes, the real Swiss Guards, who are unfortunately not dressed in their colourful uniforms), why you are there. The most important thing is that they don’t think that you are just another tourist looking for the Vatican Museum! There is a sign just next to the door indicating the way to the Museum, which points totally in the opposite direction, but it nevertheless seems to be invisible to some… Once through the Santa Anna gate, you have entered the Vatican, and are likely to come across more cardinals, archbishops, monks and nuns than you have ever seen before!

 

 

Swiss guard in plain blue uniform with white collar and beret

Swiss Guardsman (Simone Casadei)

Don’t relax just yet – getting past the Swiss guardsman was just the beginning. Then come the local carabinieri. As a state, the Vatican City has its own police force. You have to explain to them, again, why you are there. In Italian, like everywhere else. They will show you the way to a small office where you have to hand over your ID or passport in exchange for a temporary visitor card (once you have your actual reader card, you can bypass that step). Then you keep on walking until you reach a third keep, where you are asked to show your card before walking through the Belvedere courtyard and finally accessing the Archives.

 

There, you will meet the academic equivalent of the Swiss guardsman – one of the archivists – who will ask you all about you: name, university, research subject, recommendation letter, requested documents, duration of your research stay… After that you will be asked to leave your bag and everything except what you need to take notes—not photographs—in the cloakroom and go upstairs to the reading rooms. Once there, you are almost done. Just drop the locker key to the archivists sitting behind the banco, write down your name and hour of arrival and sign the register, and order the documents you are here to see. “As simple as that”, I was told!   In fact, while it seems like a lot of procedures, it’s actually quite logical and mechanical in the end. Once you are used to it, you might even inadvertently try to enter the Santa Anna gate without showing your reader card…

Research in the Archivio is often a treasure hunt.  You can have a relatively clear idea of your itinerary and what you expect to find, but you will never have a clear idea of all that you could find – sources are so numerous and varied that it is hardly possible to have an idea of how far they extend.

 

Belvedere Square with staff parking and local fire station

Belvedere Square

What really matters for researchers is not this all of this ceremony, but what is to be found in the Archives. The wealth of their collections is amazing. Papal letters, account books, and diplomatic documents, to name but a few. More or less catalogued or inventoried, barely digitalized, you are neither allowed to photograph them, nor to see more than three volumes in one day. Research in the Archivio is often a treasure hunt.  You can have a relatively clear idea of your itinerary and what you expect to find, but you will never have a clear idea of all that you could find – sources are so numerous and varied that it is hardly possible to have an idea of how far they extend. Luckily, you will find scholars who have been going there for years, some since they were writing their DPhil, who will be more than happy to share what they have found and suggest new collections to search. Of course, you cannot talk out loud with them in the reading rooms, but there is a garden, and a cheap but delicious cafeteria, where you can – and should – gather to exchange ideas, ask questions or give answers in a relaxed way. That is where the real social life of the Archivio happens, and also what makes the community of Archivio users so special. You don’t just go there to develop your research through reading, but to also move it forward through discussion over coffee.  That has to be the ideal way of doing things!

 

(Banner image courtesy of Patrick Landy)

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