The Vatican Secret Archives

The Vatican Apostolic Archive, formerly known as the Vatican Secret Archive, serves as the central repository for documents and materials related to the Holy See. Located in Vatican City, this archive houses a vast collection of acts promulgated by the Holy See, along with other related documents. Founded by Pope Paul V at the start of the 17th century, the archive was initially named the Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum.

While the term “secretum” might resemble the word secret, it is derived from the Latin "secernere", which means “to separate or reserve”. As such, the term indicates that this collection was distinct from other archives and reserved for the Pope and authorized officials. This designation emphasized the archive's unique and private nature, making it accessible exclusively to the pontiff and his appointees.

For centuries, the archive was commonly referred to as the “Vatican Secret Archives” or the “Vatican Apostolic Secret Archives”. However, on October 22nd of 2019, Pope Francis issued an Apostolic Letter titled “Historical experience”, which reinstated the institution’s original name, the Vatican Apostolic Archives. This change reflects a commitment to historical accuracy and the evolving nature of the archive's accessibility and use.

When were the Vatican Secret Archives created?

The Secret Vatican Archives were formally established as a separate entity from the Vatican Library by Pope Paul V in 1612. This was a significant organizational decision that led to the systematic preservation of the Church's documents.

Scholars previously had very limited access to the archive, which remained closed to outsiders, until the late 19th century. It was then that Pope Leo XIII opened the archive to researchers, and now more than a thousand scholars examine some of its documents each year.

What do the Vatican Secret Archives contain?

The Vatican Secret Archive holds an extensive assortment of materials, ranging from state documents and correspondence to financial ledgers, reflecting the Church's extensive historical record-keeping.

This collection, which spans numerous historical eras, encompasses various types of documents, such as papal edicts, official decrees, personal letters, and handwritten manuscripts. These records cover a broad spectrum of topics, illustrating the Catholic Church’s influence and involvement in international affairs throughout the ages.

How large are the Vatican Secret Archives?

The Vatican Secret Archives boast a remarkable collection that chronicles twelve centuries of history, covering the period from the 8th to the 20th centuries. This vast repository includes more than 600 archival collections, meticulously organized in 35,000 volumes.

The documents are kept on shelves that extend for more than 85 kilometers. A significant portion of the collection is store in the Bunker, a secure, underground vault with two levels, located beneath the Cortile della Pigna in the Vatican Museums. This facility is dedicated to the preservation and protection of these priceless historical records.

What are the most treasured documents in the Vatican Secret Archives?

The Vatican Secret Archives contain several notable documents, such as the papal bull that excommunicated Martin Luther, the trial records of the Knights Templar, and various correspondence between the Vatican and prominent historical figures.

Among the most famous is the trial record of Galileo Galilei from 1633, which chronicles his trial by the Roman Inquisition for advocating heliocentrism. The archives also hold a wealth of state documents and diplomatic correspondence, shedding light on the Vatican's role in global affairs.

Vatican Apostolic Archives Access

The Vatican Apostolic Archives are owned by the Pope as the sovereign of Vatican City and transfer to each new Pope. Historically, access to the archives was highly restricted and limited to a few select individuals. However, in recent years, this policy has shifted, allowing qualified scholars and researchers entry under strict conditions, with limitations on what documents they can examine.

Pope Francis renamed the archives to the “Vatican Apostolic Archives” in 2019 to dispel misconceptions linked to the word “secret”. The original term was meant to reflect the private nature of the collection as belonging to the Pope, not to imply anything hidden, secret or mysterious.

Sergio Pagano, who became the prefect of the archives in 2005, noted the challenges in fully opening the archives due to their size and the difficulty in preparing documents for historian access. He observed that interest in accessing the archives often wanes once documents become available, suggesting that the demand is sometimes more about curiosity than serious scholarly research.

Pagano also addressed the reluctance to release documents related to Pius XII, interpreting this pressure as an attempt to discredit the Catholic Church. He noted that documents from the Vatican’s archives are generally only released after 75 years, although the Pope has the authority to authorize their release earlier. This policy indicates that it may take a considerable amount of time before more information is disclosed about certain aspects of the Church's history. As the Church operates with the autonomy of a sovereign nation, it retains the sole discretion in these matters.

Are the Vatican Secret Archives open to the public?
Are tickets needed to visit the Vatican Secret Archives?
How can I get access to the Vatican Secret Archives?
Where are the Vatican Secret Archives located?
What’s the difference between the Vatican Library and the Vatican Secret Archives?
Is it possible to visit the Vatican Library?