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Vatican Archives


The Vatican Archives began as the Scrinium (repository) of the popes, which served as both an archives and a library. This dual function continued until a separate custodian for the archives was appointed in 1612 by paulv (16051621). The nucleus of the material to establish the Vatican Archives came from the Bibliotheca secreta of Sixtus IV. Thus the prior history of the Vatican Secret Archives shares the same early history of the Vatican Library. The historical documentation of the Holy See is very complex because the Vatican Archives is not the only repository for records; other repositories include the Roman State Archives (Archivio di Stato di Roma ) for the Papal States and those of some individual departments or congregations of the Curia; the several reforms of the Curia in the last few centuries has added to the complexity. The history and collection development can be viewed in three periods: the early church until the 16th century, the establishment of the Vatican Secret Archives, and the 19th century to the present.

History. Apostolic Period to 16th Century. There is no information on collections in the pre-Lateran period, probably because this was a period of persecution of the Christians, which did not allow for a specified location to house records. Certainly the Christians copied and distributed the Sacred Scriptures and copies of writings of the early Church Fathers that were probably kept in various places where the pope lived.

The Lateran Period. This period is dated from 313 to 1309. The Emperor Constantine gave Melchiades (31114) the imperial residence on the Caelian Hill, named after the Lateran family. The Lateran Palace provided a location for the residence (including a library and archives) and central administration of the church for almost 1,000 years. Julian II (337352) constituted the Holy Scrinium as a repository for literary and theological writings. St. Jerome mentioned the Scrinium in a 4th century letter. Gregory the Great (590604) mentions that he placed his sermons at Lateran. The first listing of the documents of the papal administration occurred under Pope Innocent III (11981216), who created the important Regestes (registers); the first register is of John VIII (872882) and the second of Gregory VII (10731085). This series of Registers is one of the principal sources for documents on the papacy from 8721588. Innocent IV (12431254) brought some records from the archives to use at the Council of Lyon. Boniface VIII (12941303) became involved in conflicts when he attempted to assert his authority over the political leaders of Europe. Benedict XI (13031304) placed the archives in Perugia. The Lateran palace was destroyed by fire in 1308 and 1309. Clement V (13051314), fearing more attacks in 1310 from King Philip IV of France, transported 643 valuable codices to the sacristy of the monastery in Assisi. The monastery in Assisi was sacked in 1310. A section of the archives was also located at Carpentras.

The Avignon Period. The popes resided in Avignon from 1309 to 1377. Benedict XII (13341342) transferred the records from Assisi to Avignon in 1339. Documents, such as financial records and letters, continued to be collected during this period. This collection is known as the Registra Avenionensia.

Pre-Vatican Archives. Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377 and died a year later. The archives remained in Avignon until the Great Schism ended with the election of Martin V (14171431). Martin V brought the archives back to Rome (14191422), where they were temporarily housed in S. Maria Sopra Minerva, then established in his family palace (Colonna) in central Rome; though the Vatican Registers were returned to Rome during this time, the Avignon Registers were not brought to the Vatican until 1783. Eugene IV (14311447) brought some registers to use at the Council of Florence in 1435; these records traveled to Bologna (1437), Ferrara (1438) back to Florence (1440) and back to Rome (1443). The modern Vatican Secret Archives has its roots in the founding of the Vatican Library. Nicholas V (14471455) worked towards establishing a Vatican Library in preparation for the Holy Year in 1450. Sixtus IV (1471-1484) established the Vatican Library in the modern sense of the term. On June 15, 1475, Sixtus IV issued the bull, Ad decorum militantis Ecclesiae that formally established the library and set a precedent for its good administration. Giovanni Andrea Bussi was appointed the librarian and was succeeded by Bartolomeo Platina in 1475, the first official librarian. The initial Library consisted of three rooms: bibliotheca latina, bibliotheca graeca and bibliotheca secreta, the latter being the predecessor to the Vatican Secret Archives. However, some records were placed in a special archive in Castel San'Angelo (Archivum Arcis ). In 1483 an archives for the Roman Curia was formed at the founding of the College of Notaries. Julius II (15031513) sought to organize the archives of the ap ostolic Camera. In 1507 he mandated that all public and private writings belonging to the Camera be brought together at the Vatican. The Council of Trent was yet another church council that would influence the need and use of a central archives. Besides prescribing sacramental registers for parishes, Pius IV (15591565) announced that a central Archives would be set up in the Vatican Palace. Before his death in 1565 he ordered a search for all records and documents of his predecessors. Pius V continued the efforts of his forerunners to gather material for a central archives. He extended the decree on archives by Charles Borromeo at the Council of Milan in 1565 to the whole church a year later. Sixtus V (15851590) reformed the Roman Curia by establishing 15 permanent congregations. Inactive records from the previous bureaucratic structure as well as the records for the new administration were a growing concern. The Vatican Library was also concurrently growing.

Vatican Archives. As the Vatican Library developed as a center of research for scholars, the close access to government records and documents in the Biblioteca secreta became a security issue. In 1591 Gregory XIV forbid admittance to these records without his permission. Clement VIII began to move some material from the Library to a hall in Castel Sant'Angelo. He also prepared a bull in 1593 to have all the archives transferred. However this course of action was cancelled because access to the documents by the Curia was deemed to be too inconvenient; only the most valuable records were kept in the castle. In 1612 Paul V (160521) created a separate central archives section by bringing together materials from the library of Castel Sant'Angelo, the Apostolic Camera, and other official offices. This new section, completed in 1630, was located in rooms under the tower of Gregory XIII's observatory; the reports from nuncios began to be sent in the same year. In 1656 Alexander VII (16551667) mandated that the records of the Secretary of State be kept in the archives. During this period records were placed in one of 80 cabinets (armaria) that constituted the central new archives; documents became classified by cabinet number. These records were only accessible to the Pope or Secretary of State or whom they gave permission. The resources for operating the archives have been provided by the Secretary of State.

19th and 20th Centuries. Napoleonic Period. The Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte created a central archive by having the archives of the European capitals brought together. The Archivum Arcis, transferred from Castel San'Angelo in 1798, was sent to Paris in 1799. Some other records went the following year. After the imprisonment of Pius VII (18001823) in 1809 Napoleon ordered that all the records in the Vatican Archives were to be brought to Paris. This transfer took place in 1810, 1811 and 1813. The Vatican Archives were returned to Rome after the defeat of Napoleon in 1814. From 1815 onwards countries such as Austria, Denmark, England, Hungry, Russia and Sweden were given permission to have copies made of sources relative to their history.

Papal States. In 1860 the armies of Pius IX (18461878) were defeated. When the Papal States were incorporated into the kingdom of Italy in 1870, many of the civil records were transferred to the new State Archives of Rome. Now another archives, separate from the Vatican, housed records that pertained to a period of the church's history.

Archives Opened. After some debate Leo XIII (18781903) decided in 1879 to open the Vatican Archives to researchers. He appointed an historian as the new Cardinal Librarian-Archivist; a year and half later, Jan. 1, 1881, the Vatican Archives was ready to receive scholars. Access to material in the Vatican Archives has been given in stages. Initially material was available until 1815. In 1920 access was granted to material until 1830 and later to 1846. This has since been extended to Jan. 22, 1922. Material is now made accessible according to the reign of a pope. The period of Pius XI (19221939) will soon be opened. Two general factors have currently determined the opening of a pontificate: completion of cataloging material during a respective reign, which can take several years, and sensitivity to material that pertains to people who may still be alive.

Collection. The records in the Vatican Archives are divided and organized according to the various functions of the Holy See. The arrangement of material has generally followed the bureaucratic structure that developed from the reforms of Sixtus V (15851590) in 1588 prior to the Archives being officially established. The archive section for the Roman Curia can become complicated as a result of reforms over the centuries. The divisions of the Vatican Archives include the College of Cardinals, the Papal Court (papal chapel and papal household), Roman Curia (congregations, offices, and tribunals), Apostolic Nunicatures, Internunciatures, Delegations (diplomatic records by country), the Papal States (found in the State Archives of Rome), and Permanent Commissions (Archeology, Biblical, Historical Sciences, etc.) and Miscellaneous collections (the Armaria, monasteries, convents, religious orders, confraternities, etc.).

The archives of the Holy See go beyond the Vatican Archives. The records of the Papal States are found in the State Archives of Rome. The archives for some departments and offices are kept at their respective location for convenience. Among them are: Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Congregation for Worship and Sacraments, Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples (Propagation of the Faith), Section for Relations with States (Secretary of State), Penitentiary, Pontifical Ceremonies, and the Fabbrica of St. Peter's Basilica.

Bibliography: m. a. ambrosini, The Secret Archives of the Vatican (Boston, 1969). l. e. boyle, A Survey of the Vatican Archives and Its Medieval Holdings (Toronto, 1972). o. chadwick, Catholicism and History: The Opening of the Vatican Archives (Cambridge, 1978). L'Archivio Secreto Vaticano: Un secolo dalla sua apertura 18811981 (Vatican City 1981). f. blouin, Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to the Historical Documents of the Holy See (New York 1997).

[c. kosanke]

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