The Vatican Library began as the Library of the popes, for since the beginning of papal times the popes
have collected archival documents. Using the place of residence of the popes and the locations of their collections as a basis for division, Nello Vian distinguishes five periods in the histories of the so-called libraries maintained by the popes: the pre-Lateran, when manuscripts were to be found in many different places; the Lateran period, when the archives were collected in the papal palace of the Lateran; the Avignon period, when the popes resided at avignon; the pre-Vatican, the interim period when materials were being assembled in Rome; and the Vatican, from the middle of the fifteenth century to the present time. However, two general periods can be identified as the libraries of the popes prior to the Vatican Library and the Vatican Library.
Prior to the Vatican Library. 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 and maintain a collection of documents. Certainly the Christians copied and distributed the Sacred Scriptures and copies of writings of the early Church Fathers that were kept in various places.
The Lateran period is dated from 313 to 1309. The Emperor Constantine gave Melchiades (311–14) 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 (337–352) constituted the Holy Scrinium as a repository for literary and theological writings. St. Jerome (patron saint of librarians) mentioned the Scrinium in a 4th century letter. Gregory the Great (590–604) mentions that he placed his sermons at Lateran. The first listing of the documents of the papal administration occurred under Pope Innocent III (1198–1216), who created the important Regestes. The earliest extant catalogue (1295) identifies 443 items as belonging to the library of Boniface VIII (1294–1303). The papal collection of illuminated manuscripts had become of the most important in Europe. However, Boniface VIII initiated conflicts when he attempted to assert his authority over the political leaders of Europe. Clement V (1305–1314), fearing more attacks in 1310 from King Philip IV of France, transported 643 valuable codices to the sacristy of the monastery in Assisi. The Lateran palace was destroyed by fire in 1308 and 1309. The monastery in Assisi was sacked in 1310.
The popes resided in Avignon from 1309 to 1377. John XXII (1316–1334) not only bought manuscripts but had them copied at Avignon. Manuscripts were very frequently given to the popes, and through the exercise of the Law of Spoils the church fell heir to the possessions of the prelates. During the reign of Clement VI (1342–1352) the papal library achieved great distinction; the administration of the library was in the hands of the Sacristan of the Apostolic Palaces. The books themselves were located in the Tower of the Angels. In certain classes, for example, juridical literature, the papal library at Avignon surpassed even that of the Sorbonne. The library of the popes was open to those who had need of consulting it. A famous example is the request for a copy of Pliny in 1352 by Petrarch, who left his copy in Verona. Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377 and died a year later. The Great Schism ended with the election of Martin V (1417–1431); he and his successor, Eugene IV (1431–1447) added to the library in Rome. However, unlike the Avignon period, the use of the library was limited to the private use of the popes and the Curia.
The Vatican Library A new period began with the election of Nicholas V (1447–1455), who wanted to make Rome a center of learning and culture. He conceived of a papal library that would be a great resource to all the world's scholars. Nicholas V began with over 340 manuscripts bequeathed by Eugene IV and sent men all over Europe to acquire more. Revenue from the Holy Year of 1450 provided the necessary resources. When constantinople fell, the Imperial Library and the exiled Byzantine scholars came to the Vatican. At the time of Nicholas's death, the first catalogue indicated that there were between 1200 and 1500 volumes in the papal collection but no special depository for them.
Sixtus IV (1471–1484) established the Vatican Library in the modern sense of the term. Giovanni Andrea Bussi was appointed the librarian and was succeeded by Bartolomeo Platina in 1475, the first official librarian. On June 15, 1475, Sixtus IV issued the bull Ad decorum militantis Ecclesiae, formally establishing the library and setting a precedent for its good administration. The bull defined the function of the library, described the poor condition in which many of the volumes were found, provided for suitable quarters for the collection, officially appointed the librarian, insured employment of subordinate officials, and made certain that regular revenue be assigned to the library for the preservation, restoration, and increase of the collection as well as support of its operating costs. The funds, moreover, were to be used for this purpose only, and a financial report of their use was to be made every January under pain of excommunication. The suitable quarters were the ground floor of the Vatican Palace, with the entrance to the Pappagallo courtyard. The initial library consisted of three rooms: the bibliotheca latina, bibliotheca graeca and bibliotheca secreta ; later another room was added, the bibliotheca pontificia. On June 30, 1475, another papal bull was issued regarding the return of books. Platina's register of book charges for the years 1475 to 1485 is still available and includes the names of many noted humanists. Renowned artists were requisitioned to decorate the library: Domenico and David Ghirlandario, Melozzo da Forli, and Antoniazzo Romano. The catalogue of 1481 drawn up eight days before Sixtus's death indicates that the collection had grown to 3,499 items. The reputation of the Vatican Library was so great that scholars vied to be named librarian.
The acquisitions, space and prestige of the Vatican Library continued to grow in the 16th century. Julius II (1503'1513) added more rooms. Leo X (1513–1521) initiated a search for manuscripts all over Europe and the Orient by employing "book hunters" such as Johann Heitmers and Fausto Sabeo. He appointed well-known scholars to manage the library and to enforce the rules of Sixtus IV. Under Leo X the Vatican Library had 4070 items, making it the richest manuscript collection in the world. The growing influence of the library became reflected in new ecclesiastical titles. Paul III (1534–1549) appointed the first Cardinal Librarian. Julius III (1550–1555) changed the title of prefect to that of Bibliotecario di Santa Romana Chiesa, the official title that continues to be used. In order to accommodate the flood of new collections, Sixtus V (1585–1590) had Domenico Fontana design, between 1587 and 1589, a new building that divided the Belvedere courtyard from the Pigna courtyard. The top floor is a magnificent hall (184 feet long and 57 feet wide) that became known as the Sistine Library. In 1587, Sixtus V moved the printing works founded by Pius IV (1559–1565) in 1561. This act began the Vatican Press, the task of which was to publish the correct texts of the Scriptures, of the writings of the Church Fathers, of the decrees of the Council of trent, and of canonical laws. The council had underlined the importance of this work. By the end of the 16th century the Vatican Library had an arrangement of its collections.
The Vatican Library acquired many private collections in the 17th century. Though Gregory XIII (1572–1585) made arrangements in 1581 for acquiring the library of Fulvio Orisini, the library (413 manuscripts) remained in Orsini's possession until his death. The Vatican acquired the collection in 1600. In 1612 Paul V (1605–21) created a separate archives section by bring ing together materials from the library of Castel Sant'Angelo, the Apostolic Camera, and other official offices. This new section, completed in 1630, began the Vatican Secret Archives, located in rooms under the tower of Gregory XIII's observatory. Paul V also acquired the 28 precious codices from the monastery San Columbo in Bobbio. The Palatine Library of Heidelberg (3500 manuscripts and many printed works) was donated in 1622 to Gregory XV (1621–23). Until 1622 codices received at the Vatican Library were classified according to their contents, with special categories for Sacred Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, the Scholastics, liturgy, hagiography, homiletics, canon law, the classics, and the neo-Latin works. Afterwards a new system of classification was employed. The collections became known by their background (Fondo ); the Vatican Library collection prior to 1622 became the Fondo Vaticano. In 1658, Alexander VII (1655–1667) received the important Fondo Urbinate (1767 Latin and Italian, 165 Greek and 128 Oriental manuscripts) established by the Duke of Urbino in the 15th century. In 1689 part of the Fondo Reginense (the collection of Queen Christina of Sweden) was sold to Alexander VIII (1689–1691). The entire collection (2,120 Latin manuscripts and 190 Greek manuscripts, plus 55 manuscripts from the library of Pius II) was later acquired by Benedict XIV (1740–1758).
The Vatican Library continued to receive important manuscript collections in the 18th century as well as important collections of antiquities. The Fondo Capponiano (288 codices) was bequeathed in 1746. Benedict XIV bought the Fondo Ottoboniano (3,394 Latin and 473 Greek manuscripts) in 1748. The Orientalists Joseph Simon Assemani and his nephew Stephan Evodius began an inventory of the Oriental manuscripts. The initial tome was published in 1756; the second in 1758; the third in 1759. The fourth tome was destroyed by fire in 1768. In 1738, the numismatic collection (Medagliere ) was founded. The Museum of Sacred Art, with its artifacts from the early Christian era, was established in 1755. With the separation between sacred and secular arts came the founding of the Museum of Secular Art in 1767. (These museums are now part of the Vatican museums.)
There was little activity at the Vatican Library during most of the 19th century, probably due to the difficulties of using the library, such as a lack of indexes and inventories, and perhaps to restrictions caused by the political troubles of the time. From 1801 on each issue of the Annuario pontificio lists the bibliotecario of the library; the names of the custody and scrittori were also given. From 1814 to 1870 the Vatican Library and other major libraries in the area are listed in the annual under the heading Biblioteche Pubbliche. From 1820 to 1870 the list under this heading gave the location, staff, and hours of opening. During this time part of the Fondo Cicognara (4,300 volumes) was given to the library (1824) and the remainder in 1834. An inventory of the Latin manuscripts occurred during the period from 1852 to 1878. A renewal of life in the library took place under Leo XIII (1878–1903). In 1881 Leo removed all restrictions for research workers. His 1883 letter Saepenumero, on the importance of historical studies, formally decreed the Vatican Library open for historical research. Catalogues and descriptions of the library's collections became essential for access to the materials and were published in 1880, 1885, and 1886. In 1885 a reading room was opened; this later became the sala di consultazione or reference room. In 1888 the motu proprio, Augustum sanctissimumque munus was accompanied by the "Reglomento della Biblioteca Vaticana," which detailed the organization of personnel, administration, and service. In 1891 the Vatican Library received the Fondo Borghese with manuscripts from the Papal Library at Avignon. A catalogue of the Fondo Ottoboniano was completed in 1893. The process of cataloguing the Urbino collection began in 1895 and finished in 1921. A description of the manuscripts of the Fondo Capponiano was written in 1897.
The modernization of the Vatican Library generated by Leo XIII accelerated in the 20th century. A series called Studi e Testi was begun in 1900 by Father Francis Ehrle, S. J., the First Curator, to publish scholarship on the Vatican Library collections. (During Ehrle's time the role of First Curator changed to Prefect). In 1902 the library acquired the Fondo Borgiano (that was given to the Propaganda Fide in 1804) and the important Fondo Barberiniano (10,041 Latin manuscripts, 505 in Greek, 160 Oriental manuscripts and 36,049 printed volumes). The publication of the catalogues concerning the manuscripts Vaticani latini commenced in 1902 and was completed in 1931. The Fondo Rossiano (1,196 manuscripts, 6,000 rare prints and 2,500 incunabula) was added in 1921.
A significant stage in the modern development of the library occurred under Pius XI (1922–1939). The pope's special interest in the library was due to the fact that he was the prefect from 1914 to 1919. In 1923, the Italian state gave the library the Fondo Chigiano (3,916 manuscripts). The Fondo Ferrajoli (885 manuscripts and 100,000 autographs) was purchased in 1926. A project was quietly undertaken by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 1928 to improve the Vatican Library for research.
An elevator was installed, which is still used today, and a new entrance was created. Electric lighting, temperaturep controls, and new steel books stacks were installed. An international committee, chaired by William Warner Bishop, provided technical assistance on indexing and cataloguing. One of the first steps taken under the reorganization plan was the adoption of the general principles and practices of the Library of Congress system of classification. This system was later abandoned. In 1934 a school of library science was established in connection with the library and staffed, primarily, by assistants who had had training and experience in the United States.
During the reign of Pius XII (1939–1958) many scholarly endeavors occurred. Catalogues were composed, including the Ferrajoli manuscripts (1939–1960), Coptic manuscripts (1947), Borghese manuscripts (1952), and Hebrew manuscripts (1956). Description of manuscripts were written, including the Vaticani latini (1947–61), Persian manuscripts (1948), Vaticani greci (1950), and Turkish manuscripts (1953). Due to the importance of the Studi e Testi, it was decided that from 1942 on every 100th volume would be an index volume with the table of contents, an analytic description of each volume, and a cumulative index of authors, by name and by subject, for the manuscripts and articles cited in these volumes. The first volume of tables and general indices was published in 1942 (for volumes 1–100), the second in 1959 (for volumes 101–200), the third in 1986 (for volumes 201–300); the fourth in 2002 (for volumes 301–400). During the reigns of John XXIII (1958–1963) and Paul VI (1963–1978) catalogues and descriptions of manuscripts continued a steady rate. A Sale di Riviste was opened in 1971; more than 1,000 journals are available there.
Major advances occurred under the reign of John Paul II (1978–). The American Friends of the Vatican Library was approved in a letter dated Oct. 9, 1981, to the prefect, Fr. (later Cardinal) Alfons M. Stickler, from the secretary of state, Cardinal Agostino Casaroli. This group raises funds for special projects for the library. A new subterranean storehouse was inaugurated in 1983. One of the most important projects of the 20th century in the library was the cataloguing of its 8,300 incunabula. Prior to this time only a handwritten list of 1,547 incunabula existed, compiled from 1853 to 1868. Some attempts at describing and cataloguing parts of the incunabula were made from 1927 to 1944, 1964, and 1983. The whole collection was finally inventoried from 1988 to 1997 and entered into a database (ISTC). The computerized Vatican catalogue (OPAC) is connected to the Roman network URBS. Its primary access is to books: 500,000 cards are accessible, which provide information about more than a million printed volumes. The electronic cataloguing of non-print material includes 150,000 manuscripts, more than 100,000 autographs, more than 300,000 coins and medals, and over 100,000 prints and engravings. In 2001 a new reading room for periodicals was opened. An archives room was created underneath the prefect's office to properly house the volumes pertaining to the administration of the library. The Guide to the Manuscript and Printed Book Collections and Numismatic Cabinet of the Vatican Library was completed in 2002. This new guide provides more in depth information on the composition, the history, the means of cataloguing, and the bibliography for all the collections of the Vatican Library. There is no precedence to an undertaking of this kind, being based on the collaboration of dozens of specialists, both inside and outside of the Vatican, who edited hundreds of diverse entries. Improved security and atmospheric systems were being planned in 2002. Under the leadership of the librarian-archivist, Cardinal Jorge M. Mejía, and the prefect, Fr. Raffaele Farina, S.D.B., the Vatican Library continues to advance as a tremendous resource to scholars worldwide.
Bibliography: e. tisserant and t. w. koch, The Vatican Library (Jersey City, NJ 1929); The Books Published by the Vatican Library (Vatican City 1947). n. vian, La Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican City 1970). e. boyle, A Survey of the Vatican Archives and Its Medieval Holdings (Toronto 1972). c. carlen, "The Popes and the Vatican Library" in Translatio Studii: Manuscript and Library Studies, ed. j. g. plante (Collegeville, MN 1973) 39–47. a. stickler, Vatican Library: Its History and Treasures (Vatican City 1989). Bibliothecae Apostolicae Vaticanae Incunabula, ed. w. sheehan (Vatican City 1997). Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (Vatican City 2000).