One day early in the sixteen-twenties, an archivist working in the library of the Holy See stumbled upon a text of Procopius’s “Historia Arcana” (“The Secret History”), which painted a devastating new portrait of the Emperor Justinian and his inner circle as venal, corrupt, immoral, and un-Christian. The discovery set off a bitter debate about just who Justinian was, and raised questions about the way history is written. The tale of its discovery also exemplifies some of the paradoxical problems that have long haunted the institution in which it was found: the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the Vatican Apostolic Library—or, as its present-day users call it, the Vat. One problem is obvious: the Vat’s collection, which has been accreting since the mid-fourteen-hundreds, is so vast that even the people who run it haven’t always known what they’re sitting on top of. Another is that although the library was founded as, essentially, a public information resource, the Vatican itself has had a historically vexed relationship to knowledge, power, secrecy, and authority.
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