History of the Vatican Library



History of the Library

The Vatican Library began during the Renaissance, a time when scribes, illuminators, binders and printers prided themselves on creating books that were as physically beautiful as their contents were illuminating. Owning or reading a book of this time offered not only intellectual pleasure, but tactile and social experiences as well. During this time it was mostly in the great monasteries that collections of books were being created, collected and used for study. It was in the Scriptoria of these monasteries where the monks created books for their own use, as well as outside commissions. (Begni)

At the beginning of the Renaissance period, Rome was practically a desert where once a great city had thrived. In the 14th century, the seat of papal rule had been moved from Rome to Avignon, in southern France, but by the late 14th century the authority of the papal government was reestablished in Rome and became the papal states. It was soon after this that Pope Nicholas V (1447-55) set out to build a new Rome. His plan to build extensive public works to provide both physical defenses for the Church and to lure pilgrims and scholars began a transformation of the city. (Grafton)

The popes had always collected books for their own private libraries; at this time important collections of books were mostly confined to churches, monasteries, and wealthy individuals. Most people rarely had the opportunity to view or study a book. Nicolas decided that he wanted to create a ‘public library’ for the use of all scholars. It was not meant to be a mere collection of books. He meant to establish it as an institution, a central public library for humanist scholarship.

Nicholas began to increase his personal collection by purchasing volumes and employing copyists to copy originals that could not be bought from their owners. He also invited Italian and exiled Byzantine scholars to Rome and commissioned them to translate the Greek Classics into Latin for his library. Since the invention of printing, the collection of printed books had begun as well. Pope Nicholas was an expert calligraphist, he was able to personally oversee the work done by his copyists and binders. He had the writing done on the finest parchment, and had most of the manuscripts bound in crimson and fastened with silver clasps. (Begni)

Nicholas’s death prevented him from carrying out his idea of a public library, but the idea was adopted by his successor, Sixtus IV (1471- 1484). It was common practice, when a pope died, to leave his collections and papers to his family’s archives, and not to the next pope, although some of these family collections have come back to the Vatican Library as personal family donations. Nicholas left Sixtus three distinct collections, or libraries, one of Latin codices, one of Greek codices, and the Secret Archives of the papacy itself. Nicholas was the first pope to leave his library as a central beneficiary of his patronage. (Grafton)

Sixtus established a permanent area to house the volumes, records and Secret Archives in the Vatican Palace, and called it the Palatine Library. It was equipped with shelves, desks, benches and presses. Giovanni Tortelli was named director of the Library, and he prepared the first catalogue of the collection. However, the rooms that stored the volumes were small, dark and damp, and needed to be improved if a public library were to be established, as well as for the preservation of the books.

The Library was enlarged by Julius II (1503-1513), and later rebuilt by Sixtus V. It was considered a gigantic undertaking, at a cost of over twenty-five thousand dollars, which rose to over forty thousand dollars after furnishing and artwork, a fortune for the time. There were beautiful frescos and it was lighted by large windows and furnished with elaborate wooden benches where most books were chained, as was usual in those days. The Library became a spectacular a work of art, and it was at this time that it came to be known as the Vatican Library.

Even Sixtus’ gigantic library soon became full, and gradually the collection spread throughout hallways and into adjoining rooms. It was Pope Pius X who eventually remedied the situation by relocating the nearby Vatican Press, and assigning its space to the Vatican Library. (Begni)

The growth of the collection of the Vatican Library grew rapidly. Large and small purchases and donations continued to fill the limited library space. Examples would be the transference of the Heidelberg Library to Rome in the 18th century, and the contributions Pope Clement XI (1700-1721), who dispatched scholars to all parts of the Orient to purchase manuscripts, and who is regarded as the founder of the Oriental section. The magnificent prices that were paid for some of the texts made them highly attractive to many curious scholars. (Grafton)

Some materials that the Vatican Library has acquired over the years have caused some controversy. For example, the first 6 books of the 'Annals of Tacitus' were known to have been stolen from the Monastery of Corvey. In the early 16th century Pope Leo was able to acquire them, and fully knew the circumstances. In 1515 he made printed copies of the manuscript, and ‘graciously’ sent a set of the ‘printed’ books, specially bound, to the Abbot of Corvey. (Orcutt)

The library staff were referred to as Custodians and the director of the Library as the Cardinal Librarian. There were scientific officials such as Scriptores (the ancestors of modern scriptores who do the scholarly research for catalogs of the library’s holdings), as well as attendants. Many of the scientific officials were responsible for the investigation, arrangement and description of the Codices, the preparation of the catalogues of manuscripts for printing, and the supervision of the printing. There were officials whose work was confined to the manuscripts and some who were in charge of the printed books. A number of bookbinders were also on staff for repairing old bindings and making new ones as well. When a manuscript was newly bound, it was imprinted with the coat of arms of the current reigning Pope, however the bindings of the printed books did not receive the imprint. (Begni)

The academic staff represented the interests of the Latin, Greek and Hebrew languages, which was quite an innovation in that time, a humanist ideal that a man of culture should be conversant with Latin, Greek and Hebrew. The humanists believed that the Greek and Latin classics contained the lessons one needed to lead a moral and effective life. It was an ideal that was thriving all over Europe. The Vatican Library was not a University, so by supporting this ideal it was claiming to be more than just a book repository, it was claiming to also be an academic centre in the humanist tradition.

By functioning as an academic centre, the library was able to do what war could not. It was able to maintain the prestige of the papacy among intellectuals, help to combat heresies, and provide access to the ‘truths’ of the ancient world.

This openness of scholarly study did occasionally lead to conflict between the library’s contents and the purpose and beliefs of the Church itself. There was a risk that the science being studied could be used to undermine the power of the papacy, to threaten the solid historical basis of the medieval Church by a scholarly opinion that replaced it with a history of a vast and disorderly cosmos.

Humanist studies such as Latin poetry and the study of classical ruins were purposely cultivated by the Vatican and it became recognized throughout Europe for its sophistication, humour, and wide variety of scholarly interest. It is interesting to note that some areas of study, like Galileo’s radical new ideas, were not considered to be tolerable scientific ideas by the advanced scholars of the Vatican.

During the Renaissance the library offered a highly advanced facility for scholarly work. Its collections were considered comprehensive, its staff educated and informative and it was considered Europe’s finest resource for Oriental studies.

There were rules and procedures in place for controlling and maintaining the collection. Each librarian had an inventory of the books in notebook form that was adequate at the time for a collection of a few thousand books. As the collection grew, shelf lists were added as well. (Grafton)

Most of the manuscripts were chained to ‘benches’, which were actually tables with benches attached to them. Each of these was dedicated to a particular subject, and the scholars who wished to use them had to study them in place. Many more of the manuscripts were stored in low, beautifully painted wooden presses in the wings of the buildings that were several hundred yards long. The public would be permitted access only to the reading room, so when a scholar desired a certain manuscript stored in the presses, the attendants had to travel a long distance from the Reading room to the presses, carrying back and forth the massive volumes. (Begni)

There was often the fear of theft and damage to the manuscripts and books, so the attendants had to keep close watch on the patrons at all times. The librarians all swore solemn oaths to preserve and account for every book in their care. Scholars were allowed to borrow volumes up until the early 17th century. The circulation system consisted of registers that recorded loans and their return. Some of these registers still exist, and we can see scholars such as the philosopher Pico della Mirandola, borrowing and returning the works of Roger Bacon. When a scholar would borrow a volume, they also had to take the chains that held it to the table, as a reminder to bring them back. When books were not returned in a timely fashion and the librarians themselves were not able to persuade the borrower to return them, the Pope himself would have to send out a recall notice, which would usually produce results.

Rome began attracting a large community of scholars. Many kinds of creative institutions began to emerge. In the 15th century Rome’s printers began creating fashionable classical texts and commentaries. In the 16th century, Rome’s postal service became the most rapid and sophisticated in Europe, and in the late 17th century, there emerged in Rome a body of sarcastic political observers who produced biting newsletters read throughout Europe, ancestor to the modern newspaper. By the end of the 17th century Rome was again a grand city that possessed a unique drama and excitement.

Unfortunately, as the city, library and the Vatican itself grew and flourished problems began to arise. The popes became very ambitious, they began supporting many wars and their extravagant living and questionable moral behaviour was criticized. Many people felt that the practices of the Catholic Church were inappropriate.

The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 with Luther’s protest against such indulgences. He attacked traditional doctrines and practices as well as the papacy itself, and did not have to work very hard to convince the masses of the immoral extravagance of the popes in their many military, political, architectural and artistic pursuits.

The leaders of the Church had no choice but to redefine their beliefs and practices if they hoped to survive the Reformation. The constitution of the Church was made into a more centralized form and the Cardinals became officers of Papal policy rather than independent barons. It was the curial intellectuals, including the Vatican librarians, that helped to use the context of culture, theology, church history, scholarly pursuits and religious art to defend their faith and activities.

During and shortly after the Reformation, the policies regarding the vision for the Vatican Library, and access to it changed. The library began to focus on Ecclesiastical history and law as they were matters relevant to the reform of the Church. Indices of prohibited books were drawn up, and certain persons, such as Protestant scholars, were prohibited as well. (Grafton)

Things did not change for a long time. Over the next three centuries, even when other libraries all over Europe were bustling with activity, readers scarcely ever came to the Vatican Library. In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte arrested and imprisoned Pius VII (1800-1823) and ordered the contents of the Vatican Archives moved to Paris; over three thousand chests of materials were shipped. After the defeat of Napoleon in 1814, it took 3 years to move the materials back to the Vatican. (Blouin)

It was not until the time of Leo XIII (1878-1903) that the Vatican Library is described as having ‘an awakening after a long sleep’. In August, 1883, Pope Leo formally opened the library once again to scholars. New rules were formed, a spacious reading room was opened, new staff were hired and the office of the Cardinal Librarian was now regarded as the position of Prefect. (Grafton)

From 1895 to 1914 Father Franz Ehrle was the prefect of the Vatican Library, and he is credited with bringing the library back to life. He was said to possess a great knowledge of the workings of a library, unbending energy, patience and a wide range of scientific and technical knowledge.

Father Ehrle began by revising many regulations, and assuring that they were followed more stringently than had been expected in the past. He began reorganizing the collection to promote proper storage and gave priority to the preservation and restoration of the damaged manuscripts in the collection. He also did away with some old practices, such as the earlier custom of marking a small black cross on the back of all manuscripts which, because of their contents, were not deemed advisable to place at the disposal of all scholars indiscriminately. (Begni)

Some of Father Ehrle’s other projects included seeking out new collections, such as the Borghese and Barberini libraries, and devising a large reference area for the convenience of students working with the manuscripts. The reference collection was classified according to the Library of Congress scheme, as were all new books. Father Ehrle renovated and modernized the reading rooms, added a convenient entrance to the library, an additional 14 miles of steel shelving and also installed a new ventilation system for the stacks. The new stacks were of the American design, Snead Standard Stacks with open bar shelves composed of three tiers of various lengths. Three stairways and an elevator provide access and across the top a bridge united the stacks to the cataloging room. (Tiss)

Adjacent to the reading room, the new catalog cards together with sets of cards from the Library of Congress were housed in catalog drawers. Father Ehrle also removed all the manuscripts from the state rooms and housed them in fire proof compartments near the reading and reference areas. Library attendants were undoubtedly grateful to Father Ehrle, for their endless journeys of carrying massive volumes up and down the long corridors were finally ended. (Begni)

Father Ehrle also set up the first library conservation department in Europe and began a program of photographically reproducing many of the important works in the collections to assist with their preservation while making them more accessible to scholars. Once the preservation activities were initiated, materials from other libraries were eventually transferred to the Vatican Library for safer preservation. (Grafton)

The department devoted to the repairing of damaged manuscripts became a very important part of the Vatican Library. Father Ehrle encouraged many libraries across the world to study the repair and preservation of library materials and to share their methods. The Vatican Library Clinic developed many new processes of its own, and accepted other libraries volumes for repair, depending on their importance. (Begni)

With the help of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Library of Congress between 1927 and 1939, an excellent card catalog to all the printed books was created. An American trained Norwegian named ‘John Ansteinsson of Trondheim’ became the father of modern cataloging in the Vatican Library. For two years he directed the work of four staff members experienced in the work from the Library of Congress or in various library schools in the USA. (Grafton)

The Rev. Leonard E. Boyle was the chief librarian of the Vatican Library from 1984 to 1997. He is given credit for further modernizing the Vatican Library. Fr. Boyle was a highly respected Oxford-trained paleographer, or student of manuscripts, and a widely published and prize-winning scholar. Fr. Boyle computerized the library's catalogues, wired the main reading room for laptops, hired women for the first time and liberalized the strict dress code. In 1995 a professor of art at Ohio State University stole two leaves from a medieval manuscript once owned by Petrarch. Father Boyle was criticized for granting Professor Melnikas special access to the library, and was dismissed from the Vatican Library in 1997. (New York Times)

Today the Vatican Library houses the richest collection of western manuscripts and printed books in the world. Even though the collection of printed books is not large in number, the percentage of rare and valuable works is much greater than is found in any other library of such proportions. Such a vast collection of early printed books records the efforts of great printers like Aldus Manutius to preserve manuscripts from damage and to make books accessible to a far wider audience than scribes could reach.

The Popes had books, in addition to other works of art, custom made. Books were written and illuminated by the greatest artists of the time, in styles as varied as those of any other work of art. However, they also understood that an individual book, especially a manuscript, could also be an historical as well as a literary document. The notes and letters by scholars in the margins of a work provide the opportunity for tangible contact with the past. Texts like these, marbled and layered with messages and meanings, record both what the ancients had to say and what each generation of later readers and scholars said about them. (Grafton)

In the modern day world the Vatican Library provides us with an invaluable historical resource, a rich historical record of science, learning and the arts in Europe for the past millennium. The manuscripts and printed books found today in the Vatican Library are the result of a long and involved history of deliberate acquisition, humanist ideals and the desire to acquire and share scholarly pursuits. Aesthetically and historically, it is a treasure of humanity.

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School of Library and Information Studies - University of Alberta - Email: deborahmeert@hotmail.com

updated February 12 2005