Vatican Library

Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana
(Vatican Apostolic Library)

Country   Vatican City
Type Research library
Established 1475 (1475)
Coordinates 41°54′17″N 012°27′16″E / 41.90472°N 12.45444°E / 41.90472; 12.45444Coordinates: 41°54′17″N 012°27′16″E / 41.90472°N 12.45444°E / 41.90472; 12.45444
  • 75,000 codices
  • 1.1M printed books
Other information
Director Jean-Louis Bruguès
Location on a map of Vatican City
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The Vatican Apostolic Library (Latin: Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana), more commonly called the Vatican Library or simply the Vat,[1] is the library of the Holy See, located in Vatican City. Formally established in 1475, although it is much older, it is one of the oldest libraries in the world and contains one of the most significant collections of historical texts. It currently has 75,000 codices from throughout history,[2] as well as 1.1 million printed books, which include some 8,500 incunabula.

The Vatican Library is a research library for history, law, philosophy, science and theology. The Vatican Library is open to anyone who can document their qualifications and research needs. Photocopies for private study of pages from books published between 1801 and 1990 can be requested in person or by mail.

In March 2014, the Vatican Library began an initial four-year project of digitising its collection of manuscripts, to be made available online.

The Vatican Secret Archives were separated from the library at the beginning of the 17th century; they contain another 150,000 items.

Historical periods

Scholars have traditionally divided the history of the library into five periods, Pre-Lateran, Lateran, Avignon, Pre-Vatican and Vatican.[3]


The Pre-Lateran period, comprising the initial days of the library, dated from the earliest days of the Church. Only a handful of volumes survive from this period, though some are very significant.


The Lateran era began when the library moved to the Lateran Palace and lasted until the end of the 13th century and the reign of Pope Boniface VIII, who died in 1303, by which time he possessed one of the most notable collections of illuminated manuscripts in Europe. However, in that year, the Lateran Palace was burnt and the collection plundered by Philip IV of France.[4]


The Avignon period was during the Avignon Papacy, when seven successive popes resided in Avignon, France. This period saw a great growth in book collection and record keeping by the popes in Avignon, between the death of Boniface and the 1370s when the Papacy returned to Rome.


The Pre-Vatican period ranged from about 1370 to 1446. The library was scattered during this time, with parts in Rome, Avignon and elsewhere.


In 1451, bibliophile Pope Nicholas V sought to establish a public library at the Vatican, in part to re-establish Rome as a destination for scholarship.[5][6] Nicholas combined some 350 Greek, Latin and Hebrew codices inherited from his predecessors with his own collection and extensive acquisitions, among them manuscripts from the imperial Library of Constantinople. Pope Nicholas also expanded his collection by employing Italian and Byzantine scholars to translate the Greek classics into Latin for his library.[6] The knowledgeable Pope already encouraged the inclusion of pagan classics.[1] Nicolas was important in saving many of the Greek works and writings during this time period that he had collected while traveling and acquired from others.

In 1455, the collection had grown to 1200 books, of which 400 were in Greek language.[7]

Nicholas' death in 1455 prevented the completion of his vision of a public library, but it was finished in 1475 by his successor Pope Sixtus IV, and named the Palatine Library.[6] During the papacy of Sixtus IV, acquisitions were made in "theology, philosophy and atristic literature".[4] The number of manuscripts is variously counted as 3,500 in 1475[4] or 2,527 in 1481, when librarian Bartolomeo Platina produced a signed listing.[8] At the time it was the largest collection of books in the Western world.[7]

During his reign, Pope Julius II commissioned the expansion of the building.[6] Around 1587, Pope Sixtus V commissioned the architect Domenico Fontana to construct a new building for the library, which is still used today. It was after this the library became known as the Vatican Library.[6]

During the Counter-Reformation, access to the library's collections was limited following the introduction of the Index of banned books. Scholars' access to the library was restricted, particularly Protestant scholars. Restrictions were lifted during the course of the 17th century, and Pope Leo XIII formally reopened the library to scholars in 1883.[5][6]

In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte arrested Pope Pius VII, and removed the contents of the library to Paris. The contents were returned in 1817, three years after the defeat of Napoleon.[6]

In 1992 the library had almost 2 million catalogued items.[5]

In 1995 art history teacher Anthony Melnikas from Ohio State University stole three leaves from a medieval manuscript once owned by Francesco Petrarch.[9][10] One of the stolen leaves contains an exquisite miniature of a farmer threshing grain. A fourth leaf from an unknown source was also discovered in his possession by the U.S. Customs agents. Melnikas was trying to sell the pages to an art dealer, who then alerted Father Leonard E. Boyle, the librarian director.[10]

Location and building

Ancient Roman sculpture, maybe of Saint Hippolytus of Rome, found in 1551 at Via Tiburtina, Rome, and now at the Vatican Library

The Library is located inside the Vatican Palace, and the entrance is through the Belvedere Courtyard.[11] When Sixtus commissioned the expansion and the new building of the Vatican Library, he had a three story wing built right across Bramante's Cortile del Belvedere, thus bisecting it and changing Bramante's work significantly.[1] At the bottom of a grand staircase a large statue of Hippolytus decorates the La Galea entrance hall.[12]

In the first semi-basement there is a papyrus room and a storage area for manuscripts.[12] The first floor houses the restoration laboratory, and the photographic archives are on the second floor.[12]

The Library has 42 kilometres (26 mi) of shelving.[13]

The Library closed for renovations on 17 July 2007[14] and reopened 20 September 2010.[15] The three year, 9 million euro renovation involved the complete shut down of the library to install climate controlled rooms.[16]

Architecture and art

In the Sala di Consultazione or main reference room of the Vatican Library looms a statue of St Thomas Aquinas (c. 1910), sculpted by Cesare Aureli. A second version of this statue (c. 1930) stands under the entrance portico of the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum.[lower-alpha 1][18]

Library organization


The collection was originally organized through notebooks used to index the manuscripts. As the collection grew to more than a few thousand, shelf lists were used.[6] The first modern catalogue system was put in place under Father Franz Ehrle between 1927 and 1939, using the Library of Congress card catalogue system. Ehrle also set up the first program to take photographs of important works or rare works.[6] the library catalogue was further updated by Rev. Leonard E. Boyle when it was computerized in the early 1990s.[6]

Reading and lending

Bookcase in the Vatican Library

Historically, during the Renaissance era, most books were not shelved but stored in wooden benches, which had tables attached to them. Each bench was dedicated to a specific topic. The books were chained to these benches, and if a reader took out a book, the chain remained attached to it. Until the early 17th century, academics were also allowed to borrow books. For important books, the pope himself would issue a reminder slip.[6] Privileges to use the library could be withdrawn for breaking the house rules, for instance by climbing over the tables. Most famously Pico della Mirandola lost the right to use the library when he published a book on theology that the Papal curia did not approve of.[19] In the 1760s, a bill issued by Clement XIII heavily restricted access to the library's holdings.[1]

The Vatican Library can only be accessed by 200 scholars at a time,[20] and it sees 4,000 to 5,000 scholars a year, mostly academics doing post-graduate research.[16]


A miniature from the Syriac Gospel Lectionary (Vat. Syr. 559), created ca. 1220 near Mosul and exhibiting a strong Islamic influence.

While the Vatican Library has always included Bibles, canon law texts and theological works, it specialized in secular books from the beginning. Its collection of Greek and Latin classics was at the center of the revival of classical culture during the Renaissance age.[7] The oldest documents in the library date back to the first century.[13]

The library was founded primarily as a manuscript library, a fact reflected in the comparatively high ratio of manuscripts to printed works in its collection. Such printed books as have made their way into the collection are intended solely to facilitate the study of the much larger collection of manuscripts.[21]

The collection also includes 330,000 Greek, Roman, and papal coins and medals.[5]

Every year about 6,000 new books are acquired.[5]

The library was enriched by several bequests and acquisitions over the centuries.

In 1623, the hereditary Palatine Library of Heidelberg containing about 3,500 manuscripts was given to the Vatican by Maximilian I, Duke of Bavaria (who had just acquired it as booty in the Thirty Years' War) in thanks for the adroit political maneuvers of Pope Gregory XV that had sustained him in his contests with Protestant candidates for the electoral seat. A token 39 of the Heidelberg manuscripts were sent to Paris in 1797 and were returned to Heidelberg at the Peace of Paris in 1815, and a gift from Pope Pius VII of 852 others was made in 1816 to the University of Heidelberg, including the Codex Manesse. Aside from that, the Palatine Library remains in the Vatican Library to this day.

In 1657, the manuscripts of the Dukes of Urbino were acquired. In 1661, the Greek scholar Leo Allatius was made librarian.

Queen Christina of Sweden's important library (mostly amassed by her generals as booty from Habsburg Prague and German cities during the Thirty Years War) was bought by Pope Alexander VIII on her death in 1689. It represented, for all practical purposes, the entire royal library of Sweden at the time. If it had remained where it was in Stockholm, it would all have been lost in the destruction of the royal palace by fire in 1697.

Among the most famous holdings of the library is the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209, the oldest known nearly complete manuscript of the Bible. The Secret History of Procopius was discovered in the library and published in 1623.

Pope Clement XI sent scholars into the Orient to bring back manuscripts, and is generally accepted as the founder of the Oriental section.[6]

A School of library science is associated with the Vatican Library.

In 1959, a Film Library was established.[22] This is not to be confused with the Vatican Film Library, which was established in 1953 at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.

The Library has a large collection of texts related to Hinduism, with the oldest editions dating to 1819.[23]

During the library's restoration between 2007 and 2010, all of the 70,000 volumes in the library were tagged with electronic chips to prevent theft.[16]


The Abyss of Hell, coloured drawing on parchment by Sandro Botticelli (1480s)
Wandalbert von Prüm, July, Martyrologium (c860)

Notable manuscripts in the Library include: Illuminated manuscripts:

Manuscripts relating to Christianity

Classic Greek and Latin texts



Digitization projects

In 2012, plans were announced to digitize, in collaboration with the Bodleian Library, a million pages of material from the Vatican Library. A grant was provided by the London-based Polonsky Foundation.[32]

On 20 March 2014, the Holy See announced that NTT Data Corporation and the Library concluded an agreement to digitize approximately 3,000 of the Library's manuscripts within four years.[33] NTT is donating the equipment and technicians, in an estimated to be worth 18 million Euros.[34] It noted that there is the possibility of subsequently digitizing another 79,000 of the Library's holdings. These will be high-definition images available on the Library's Internet site. Storage for the holdings will be on a three petabyte server provided by EMC.[35] It is expected that the initial phase will take 4 years.[36]

The scanning of documents is impacted by the material used to product the texts. Books using gold and silver in the illuminations require special scanning equipment.[20] Digital copies are being stored in the CIFS file format.[13]

Gallery of holdings

Related libraries

Vatican Secret Library

The Vatican Secret Archives, located in Vatican City, is the central archive for all of the acts promulgated by the Holy See, as well as the state papers, correspondence, papal account books,[37] and many other documents which the church has accumulated over the centuries. In the 17th century, under the orders of Pope Paul V, the Secret Archives were separated from the Vatican Library, where scholars had some very limited access to them, and remained absolutely closed to outsiders until 1881, when Pope Leo XIII opened them to researchers, more than a thousand of whom now examine its documents each year.[38]

Vatican Film Library

Main article: Vatican Film Library

The Vatican Film Library in St. Louis, Missouri is the only collection, outside the Vatican itself, of microfilms of more than 37,000 works from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the Vatican Library in Europe. It is located in the Pius XII Library on the campus of Saint Louis University.[39] The Library was created by Lowrie J. Daly (1914–2000), with funding from the Knights of Columbus.[40] The goal was to make Vatican and other documents more available to researchers in North America.[41]

Microfilming of Vatican manuscripts began in 1951, and according to the Library's website, was the largest microfilming project that had been undertaken up to that date.[42] The Library opened in 1953, and moved to the St. Louis University campus, in the Pius XII Memorial Library, in 1959. The first librarian was Charles J. Ermatinger, who served until 2000. As of 2007, the Library has microfilmed versions of over 37,000 manuscripts, with material in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Ethiopic, as well as several more common Western European languages. There are reproductions of many works from the Biblioteca Palatina and Biblioteca Cicognara at the Vatican, as well as Papal letter registers from the Archivio Segreto Vaticano (Vatican Secret Archives) from the 9th to 16th centuries, in the series Registra Vaticana and Registra Supplicationium.[2]


Originally the director of the library was appointed a Cardinal, and given the title Cardinal Librarian.[6] Individual library staff were called "Custodians".[6] After the reopening of the library in 1883, Pope Leo XIII declared that the Cardinal Librarian be regarded as a Prefect.[6]

The Cardinal Librarian and Archivist of the Holy Roman Church is assisted by two prelates, who are the Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library (the everyday manager of the Library), and the Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives (who handles the daily affairs of the Archives). They are each assisted by a Vice-Prefect.

The office of Librarian of Vatican Library has been held at the same time as that of Archivist of Vatican Secret Archives since 1957.

The current Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library is Monsignor Cesare Pasini (who is also the Director of the Vatican School of Library Science). The Vice Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library is Doctor Ambrogio M. Piazzoni. The Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives is a Barnabite Bishop by the name of Sergio Pagano. The Vice Prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives is Father Marcel Chappin, S.J. The Archives also is responsible for the Vatican School of Paleography.[43][44]

The library currently has 80 staff who work in five departments: manuscripts and archival collections, printed books/drawings, acquisitions/cataloguing, coin collections/museums and restoration/photography.[5]

List of librarians

(P) Indicates time spent as Pro-Librarian. This is the role of acting librarian, often a librarian who is not a Cardinal.[45]

Name Lifetime Title Duration as Librarian[46][47]
Marcello Cervini 1501–1555 Bibliothecarius I 24 May 15509 April 1555
Roberto de' Nobili 1541–1559 Bibliothecarius II 1555–18 January 1559
Alfonso Carafa 1540–1565 Bibliothecarius III 1559–29 August 1565
Marcantonio da Mula 1506–1572 Bibliothecarius IV 1565–17 March 1572[48]
Guglielmo Sirleto 1514–1585 Bibliothecarius V 18 March 157216 October 1585
Antonio Carafa 1538–1591 Bibliothecarius VI 16 October 158513 January 1591
Marco Antonio Colonna 1523 ca.–1597 Bibliothecarius VII 1591–13 March 1597
Cesare Baronio 1538–1607 Bibliothecarius VIII May 159730 June 1607[49]
Ludovico de Torres 1552–1609 Bibliothecarius IX 4 July 16078 July 1609
Scipione Borghese Caffarelli 1576–1633 Bibliothecarius X 11 June 160917 February 1618[50]
Scipione Cobelluzzi 1564–1626 Bibliothecarius XI 17 February 161829 June 1626
Francesco Barberini 1597–1679 Bibliothecarius XII 1 July 162613 December 1633
Antonio Barberini 1569–1646 Bibliothecarius XIII 13 December 163311 September 1646
Orazio Giustiniani 1580–1649 Bibliothecarius XIV 25 September 164625 July 1649
Luigi Capponi 1583–1659 Bibliothecarius XV 4 August 16496 April 1659
Flavio Chigi 1631–1693 Bibliothecarius XVI 21 June 165919 September 1681[51]
Lorenzo Brancati 1612–1693 Bibliothecarius XVII 19 September 168130 November 1693
Girolamo Casanate 1620–1700 Bibliothecarius XVIII 2 December 16933 March 1700
Enrico Noris 1631–1704 Bibliothecarius XIX 26 March 170023 February 1704
Benedetto Pamphili 1653–1730 Bibliothecarius XX 26 February 170422 March 1730
Angelo Maria Querini 1680–1755 Bibliothecarius XXI 4 September 17306 January 1755
Domenico Passionei 1682–1761 Bibliothecarius XXII 10 July 174112 January 1755(P)
12 January 17555 July 1761
Alessandro Albani 1692–1779 Bibliothecarius XXIII 12 August 176111 December 1779
Francesco Saverio de Zelada 1717–1801 Bibliothecarius XXIV 15 December 177929 December 1801
Luigi Valenti Gonzaga 1725–1808 Bibliothecarius XXV 12 January 180229 December 1808
Giulio Maria della Somaglia 1744–1830 Bibliothecarius XXVI 26 January 18272 April 1830
Giuseppe Albani 1750–1834 Bibliothecarius XXVII 23 April 18303 December 1834
Luigi Lambruschini 1776–1854 Bibliothecarius XXVIII 11 December 183427 June 1853
Angelo Mai 1782–1854 Bibliothecarius XXIX 27 June 18539 September 1854
Antonio Tosti 1776–1866 Bibliothecarius XXX 13 January 186020 March 1866
Jean-Baptiste Pitra 1812–1889 Bibliothecarius XXXI 19 January 18699 February 1889[52]
Placido Maria Schiaffino 1829–1889 Bibliothecarius XXXII 20 February 188923 September 1889
Alfonso Capecelatro 1824–1912 Bibliothecarius XXXIII 29 August 189014 November 1912[53]
Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro 1843–1913 Bibliothecarius XXXIV 26 November 191216 December 1913
Francesco di Paola Cassetta 1841–1919 Bibliothecarius XXXV 3 January 191423 March 1919
Aidan [Francis Neil] Gasquet 1845–1929 Bibliothecarius XXXVI 9 May 19195 April 1929
Franz Ehrle 1845–1934 Bibliothecarius XXXVII 17 April 192931 March 1934
Giovanni Mercati 1866–1957 Bibliothecarius XXXVIII 18 June 193623 August 1957
Eugène Tisserant 1884–1972 Bibliothecarius XXXIX 14 September 195727 March 1971
Antonio Samoré 1905–1983 Bibliothecarius XL 25 January 19743 February 1983
Alfons Maria Stickler 1910–2007 Bibliothecarius XLI 7 September 198327 May 1985(P)
27 May 19851 July 1988
Antonio María Javierre Ortas 1921–2007 Bibliothecarius XLII 1 July 198824 January 1992
Luigi Poggi 1917-2010[54] Bibliothecarius XLIII 9 April 199229 November 1994(P)
29 November 199425 November 1997
Jorge María Mejía 1923-2014 Bibliothecarius XLIV 7 March 199824 November 2003
Jean-Louis Tauran 1943- Bibliothecarius XLV 24 November 200325 June 2007
Raffaele Farina 1933- Bibliothecarius XLVI 25 June 20079 June 2012
Jean-Louis Bruguès 1943- Bibliothecarius XLVII 26 June 2012

See also


  1. This sculpture is described in the following words: "S. Tommaso seduto, nella sinistra tiene il libro della Summa theologica, mentre stende la destra in atto di proteggere la scienza cristiana. Quindi non siede sulla cattedra di dottore, ma sul trono di sovrano protettore; stende il braccio a rassicurare, non a dimostrare. Ha in testa il dottorale berretto, e conservando il suo tipo tradizionale, rivela nel volto e nell'atteggiamento l'uomo profondamente dotto. L'autore non ha avuto da ispirarsi in altr'opera che esistesse sul soggetto, quindi ha dovuto, può dirsi, creare questo tipo, ed è riuscito originale e felice nella sua creazione."[17]


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Works cited

Further reading

External links

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