Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book reproduces famous documents from the Vatican Secret Archives

With millions of documents filling almost 53 miles of shelf space, the Vatican Secret Archives obviously still hold some secrets.

Despite the aura of mystery surrounding the archives, the Vatican actually encourages academics to research its holdings and has worked with a Belgian publishing house to bring 105 of the most important, or curious, documents to the public.

The coffee-table book, The Vatican Secret Archives, was published by VdH Books in Dutch, English, French and Italian.

Cardinal Raffaele Farina, the Vatican archivist, wrote in the introduction that he knows popular books and movies love to imply there are deep dark secrets intentionally hidden from public view.

But, as Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the archives, explained, the "secret" in the archives' title comes from the Latin "secretum," meaning "personal" or "private."

In fact, Pope Leo XIII ordered the archives opened to researchers in 1881, and currently 60 to 80 scholars work there each day, poring over the parchments, ledgers, letters and texts.

Of the 105 high-quality reproductions there are 19 of which have never been published before. Among the documents reproduced in this volume are:

  • A 13th-century letter from the grandson of Ghengis Khan to Pope Innocent IV includes, in its seal, one of the earliest examples of written Mongolian. In the letter, the Mongol emperor orders the pope to "pay service and homage to us" (an invitation Innocent did not accept).
  • One of the many reminders of the papacy's once-great geopolitical role is found in a 1493 bull of Pope Alexander VI, granting Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella dominion over the New World discovered by Columbus the previous year.
  • A 1586 letter to Pope Sixtus V from Mary, Queen of Scots, was written a few months before she was beheaded for plotting against her cousin, England's Queen Elizabeth I. Mary asks forgiveness for her sins and warns the pope of treacherous cardinals.
  • In a 1550 letter, Michelangelo complains that a long papal conclave has interrupted his work on the dome of St. Peter's Basilica, and he needs money.