Vatican Secret Archives

Vatican Secret Archives
Location on a map of Vatican City

The Vatican Secret Archives (Latin: Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum; Italian: Archivio Segreto Vaticano) is the central repository in the Vatican City for all of the acts promulgated by the Holy See. The Pope, as Sovereign of Vatican City and having primal incumbency, owns the archives until his death or resignation, with ownership passing to his successor. The archives also contain the state papers, correspondence, papal account books,[1] 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 closed to outsiders until 1881, when Pope Leo XIII opened them to researchers, more than a thousand of whom now examine some of its documents each year.[2]


The use of the word "secret" in the title "Vatican Secret Archives" does not denote the modern meaning of confidentiality. A fuller and perhaps better translation of the Latin may be the "private Vatican Apostolic archives". Its meaning is closer to that of the word "private", indicating that the archives are the Pope's personal property, not belonging to those of any particular department of the Roman Curia or the Holy See. The word "secret" continues to be used in this older, original sense in phrases such as "secret servants", "secret cupbearer", "secret carver", or "secretary", much like an esteemed position of honour and regard comparable to a VIP.[3]

Parts of the Secret Archives do, however, remain truly secret (or "classified" in a modern context). Most of the materials which are actively prohibited for outside viewing relate to contemporary personalities and activities, including everything dated after 1939, as well as the private records of church figures after 1922.[4]


The Vatican Secret Archives have been estimated to contain 85 kilometres (53 mi) of shelving,[5] with 35,000 volumes in the selective catalogue alone:

"Indexes must be consulted in the Index Room and replaced in their original location. Publication of the indexes, in part or as a whole, is forbidden."[6]

The Archives support their own photographic and conservation studios.

According to the web site of the Archives, the oldest surviving document dates back to the end of the 8th century:

"Transfers and political upheavals nearly caused the total loss of all the archival material preceding Innocent III" (reigned 1198–1216).[7]

From 1198 onwards, complete archives exist, although documentation is scant before the 13th century. Since that time, the documentation has included items such as Henry VIII of England's request for a marriage annulment,[8] a handwritten transcript of the trial against Galileo for heresy, and letters from Michelangelo complaining he had not been paid for work on the Sistine Chapel.[9]


The entrance to the Archives, adjacent to the Vatican Library, is through the Porta di S. Anna in via di Porta Angelica (rione of Borgo). New underground storage space was added in 1980.[10]

Qualified scholars from institutions of higher education pursuing scientific researches, with an adequate knowledge of archival research, may apply for an entry card. Scholars need an introductory letter by either a recognized institute of research or by a suitably qualified person in the field of historical research. Applicants need to specify their personal data (name, address, etc.), as well as the purpose of their research. Undergraduate (pre-baccalaureate) students are not admitted.

There are strict limitations to what archive users are able to view and access. For example, no materials dated after 1939 are available for public viewing – and an entire section of the archives relating to the personal affairs of cardinals from 1922 onwards cannot be accessed.[4][9] Pope Francis is considering when to open the full archives of Pope Pius XII.[11]

Opening of the archives

Customarily, documents are made available to the public after a period of 75 years.

  • 1817: Vatican Secret Archive brought back to the Vatican from France.[12]
  • 1883: Pope Leo XIII opened archives dated 1815 or earlier.
  • 1924: Documents up to the end of the pontificate of Gregory XVI (1 June 1846) were released.
  • 1966: Documents from the pontificate of Pius IX (1846–78). (The opening of this material was originally planned during the pontificate of Pius XII.)
  • 1978: Documents from the pontificate of Leo XIII (1878–1903).
  • 1985: Documents from the pontificates of Pius X (1903–14) and Benedict XV (1914–22).
  • 2002 (effective from 2003): Documents from the historical archives of the Secretariat of State (Second Section) pertaining to the Holy See's relations with Germany during the pontificate of Pope Pius XI (1922–39). The reason for this exceptional action was "to put an end to unjust and thoughtless speculation."[13]
  • 2006: All documents from the pontificate of Pope Pius XI.[14]


A small number of pages have been scanned and made available online. Even fewer pages have been transcribed into searchable computer text. A project called In Codice Ratio using artificial intelligence and optical-character-recognition is attempting to transcribe more documents.[15]

2012 exhibition

To mark the 400th anniversary of the Vatican Archives, 100 original documents dating from the 8th to the 20th century were put on display from February to September 2012 in the "Lux in arcana – The Vatican Secret Archives reveals itself" exhibition held at the Capitoline Museums in Rome. They included the 1521 bull of excommunication of Martin Luther and a letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, written while awaiting her execution.[16]

Cardinal Archivists of the Vatican Secret Archives

According to the Archives office, the Cardinal Archivists have been:[17]

*not a cardinal

Prefects of the Vatican Secret Archives

  • Giuseppe Garampi (9 September 1751 – 27 January 1772)
  • Mario Zampini (1772–82)
  • Gaetano Marini (1782–1815)
  • Callisto Marini (1782–1822)
  • Marino Marini (1815–55)
  • Augustin Theiner, O.S.A. (6 December 1855 – June 1870)
  • Giuseppe Cardoni (8 June 1870 – March 1873)
  • Carlo Cristofori (14 April 1873 – 13 January 1877)
  • Francesco Rosi Bernardini (17 January 1877 – June 1879)
  • Joseph Hergenröther (9 June 1879 – 3 October 1890)
  • Agostino Ciasca, O.S.A. (13 June 1891 – July 1892)
  • Luigi Tripepi (19 September 1892 – May 1894)
  • Peter Wenzel (28 July 1894 – 24 May 1909)
  • Mariano Ugolini (29 May 1909 – June 1925)
  • Angelo Mercati (22 May 1925 – October 1955)
  • Martino Giusti (1955 – April 1984)
  • Josef Metzler, O.M.I. (24 May 1984 – 1997)
  • Sergio Pagano, B. (7 January 1997 – present)

Other Holy See archives

There are other Holy See archives in Rome, since each department of the Roman Curia has its own archives. The word "secret" in its modern sense can be applied to some of the material kept by the Apostolic Penitentiary, when it concerns matters of the internal forum; but registers of the rescripts that it issued up to 1564 have been deposited in the Vatican Secret Archives and are open for consultation by qualified scholars. Half of these have already been put in digital form for easier consultation. The confidentiality of the material means that, in spite of the centuries that have passed since 1564, special rules apply to its publication.[19]

See also


  1. See Pastor, History of the Popes, vol. III, 31.
  2. Table of Admittances to the Vatican Secret Archives in the Last Years (Archived 6 May 2011 at the Wayback Machine.)
  3. "The Title "Vatican Secret Archives"". Archived from the original on 5 August 2009.
  4. 1 2 John, Christina (4 March 2013). "Making the Invisible Visible: The Secret Vatican Archives". Glocal Notes. University of Illinois Board of Trustees. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  5. "Home Page Archivio Segreto Vaticano".
  6. "Rules for Scholars". Archived from the original on 2009-08-21.
  7. The Vatican Secret Archives: The Past Archived 2011-02-21 at the Wayback Machine., Vatican website
  8. Paul Fraser Collectibles. "Henry VIII". Paul Fraser Collectibles.
  9. 1 2 Macdonald, Fiona (19 August 2016). "The secret libraries of history". Retrieved 19 August 2016.
  10. "Storeroom of the new premises".
  11. O'Loughlin, Michael (1 September 2014). "What's hidden in the Vatican Secret Archives?". CRUX. Boston Globe Media Partners, LLC. Retrieved 1 June 2015.
  12. Preston, John (1 June 2010). "The Vatican Archive: the Pope's private library". The Daily Telegraph.
  13. Vatican Archivists Rush to Declassify WWII Documents, Catholic World News, 20 February 2002
  14. "Extract from the Bulletin of the Press Office of the Holy See, 30 June 2006".
  15. Kean, Sam (30 April 2018). "Artificial Intelligence Is Cracking Open the Vatican's Secret Archives". The Atlantic. Retrieved 5 May 2018.
  16. "Nothing mysterious about Vatican archives, official says". Catholic News Agency. 2 March 2012. Retrieved 8 January 2017.
  17. "Cardinal archivists". Vatican Secret Archives. Retrieved 7 July 2018.
  18. Cuccia, Phillip (2013). "Controlling the Archives: The Requisition, Removal, and Return of the Vatican Archives during the Age of Napoleon". Napoleonica. La Revue. 2 (17): 66–74.
  19. "The Archive of the Tribunal of the Apostolic Penitentiary".

Further reading

Ambrosini, Maria Luisa. The Secret Archives of the Vatican. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969 (republished 1996). ISBN 0-7607-0125-3
Blouin, Francis X.; et al. (1998). Vatican Archives: An Inventory and Guide to Historical Documentation of the Holy See. New York, Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-509552-9. 
Pastor, Ludwig von. The history of the popes, from the close of the Middle Ages: (drawn from the secret archives of the Vatican and other original sources). from WorldCat. Reprints: Periodicals Service Company (New York) and Schmidt Periodicals GmbH (Germany)
Borromeo, Agostino. L'inquisizione : atti del Simposio internazionale, Città del Vaticano ( The inquisition: actions of the international Symposium, Vatican City), Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 2003. ISBN 88-210-0761-8

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