The Vatican Secret Archives 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, 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, 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 the late 19th century, when Pope Leo XIII opened them to researchers, more than a thousand of whom now examine some of its documents each year.
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.
Parts of the Secret Archives do, however, remain truly secret . 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.
In the first century of Christianity, the Church was already assembling a sizable collection of records. Known alternately as the Holy Scrinium or the Chartarium, it normally travelled with the current Pope. The vast majority of these documents are now lost, but we know of them through references in contemporary and later works.
In later centuries, as the Church amassed power, popes would visit heads of state to negotiate treaties or make political appearances around Europe. Popes would also have multiple places of residency. When they travelled for diplomatic or other purposes, they would take their archives with them, since they needed it for administrative work. This resulted in some loss of items.
Initially, the archival materials of the Church were stored at the Lateran Palace, then the official papal residence.
By the 11th century, the archives of the church were devolved to at least three separate sites: the Lateran, St. Peter's Basilica, and the Palatine palace. Between the 11th and the 13th centuries, a large part of these archives disappeared.
When the Popes moved to Avignon, the process of transporting their archives took twenty years, all told. The various places where the archives were kept along the way were sacked by the Ghibellines three separate times, in 1314, 1319, and 1320.
Antipopes also had their own archives. The Western Schism resulted in two sets of papal archives being developed at once; this rose to three during the era of Pisan antipope John XXIII. The disparate archives of the rival papal claimants were not fully reunited in the Vatican's archives until 1784.
During the 1404 sack of the Vatican, papal registers and historical documents were thrown into the streets, and Pope Innocent VII fled the city. His successor, Pope Gregory XII, supposedly sold off a large number of archival materials in 1406, including some of the papal registers.
In 1612, Pope Paul V ordered all Church records assembled in one place.
In 1791, France seized the portion of the Papal States within their borders. Napoleonic forces invaded the city of Rome in 1798, beginning an era of French-dominated rule in Rome that would last until 1814. During this time, the Vatican Archives were captured and removed to France. The archives were finally returned to the Vatican in 1817. However, their rough transport to Paris had put them out of order; the effects of this are still felt today in the Archives' system of cataloguing.
In 1855, Archivist Augustin Theiner began to transcribe and publish materials from the Archives. In 1870, he released the transcripts of the trial of Galileo, causing huge controversy among the Catholic Church.
See main article: Capture of Rome
On September 20, 1870, the Italians captured Rome and ended the Papal State. There was some question as to whether the Archives now belonged to the Italian state; the Church responded by not allowing anyone into their library or archives, as a way of asserting what independence they could.
Throughout the 1870s, a slow trickle of researchers began to be allowed in the Archives.
Pope Leo XIII was instrumental in the eventual opening of the Archives. In 1879, he appointed Cardinal Josef Hergenröther as archivist, an act which lent more legitimacy to the position - for a time, the position had not been occupied by a cardinal. On Hergenröther's first day as archivist, he wrote a memo recommending that historians be allowed to access the valuable materials in the Archives. The Church was worried that Protestant researchers might try to access the archives to spread slander or dig up salacious details about the Church's past, leading to a policy of very restricted access. Hergenröther wanted to change that. His policy of a more open approach to outside scholars led to Pope Leo's ordering a reading room for researchers to be constructed; this opened on January 1, 1881.
In his Letter to the Three Cardinals in 1883 Leo XIII officially opened the Archives to researchers.
In an address to the Görres Society in 1884, Leo XIII made his opinion that histories could be to the advantage of the Church, not to their detriment, very clear:
In 1979, historian Carlo Ginzburg sent a letter to the then newly elected Pope John Paul II, asking that the archives of the Holy office be opened. Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, credited Ginzburg, and his 1979 letter, as having been instrumental in the Vatican's decision to open these archives.
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.
The Vatican Secret Archives have been estimated to contain 85 kilometres of shelving, with 35,000 volumes in the selective catalogue alone. According to the web site of the Archives, the oldest surviving document in their possession dates back to the end of the 8th century.
Complete archives of letters written by the popes, known as the papal registers, are available dating from the papacy of Innocent III onward. A few registers of earlier popes also survive, including John VIII and Gregory VII .
Documentation is scant before the 13th century. Since that time, notable documents include items such as Henry VIII of England's request for a marriage annulment, 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.
The Archives also support their own photographic and conservation studios.
The entrance to the Archives, adjacent to the Vatican Library, is through the Porta di S. Anna in via di Porta Angelica . New underground storage space was added in 1980.
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 , as well as the purpose of their research. Only sixty researchers per day are allowed inside.
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. Pope Francis is considering when to open the full archives of Pope Pius XII.
Normally, documents are made available to the public after a period of 75 years. However, in special circumstances, a pope will sometimes elect to release certain records ahead of schedule. For instance, in 2002, documents were released from the historical archives of the Secretariat of State pertaining to the Holy See's relations with Germany during the pontificate of Pope Pius XI . The reason for this exceptional action was "to put an end to unjust and thoughtless speculation" about the Church's relationship with the Nazi Party.
In 2018, Pope Francis ordered the Vatican Archives to open documents which would assist in a "thorough study" concerning the sex life of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who was accused of sexually molesting seminarians and having affairs with young priests.
Pope Francis has also said that the archives relating to Pope Pius XII will be opened in March 2020. This is due to the alleged toleration Pius had with Nazi Germany, in particular its role in the Holocaust. Francis said that Pius's legacy had been treated with "some prejudice and exaggeration". However, apart from the debate surrounding the Holocaust, the archives of the papacy of Pope Pius XII should point to much broader shift in global Christianity from Europe to the global South. Since 2006, members of the archives department have been organising the estimated 16 million pages of documents, to get them ready for viewing by researchers.
Early in the 21st century, the Vatican Secret Archives began an in-house digitization project, to attempt to both make their documents more available to researchers and to provide an extra layer of preservation for aging documents.
The Archives now have 180 terabytes of digital storage capacity, and, as of 2018, they have digitized over seven million images. Given how vast the Archives are, however, this means that only a small fraction of the total content of the Archives are available online; an even smaller percentage have been transcribed into searchable computer text.
In 2017, a project based in Roma Tre University called In Codice Ratio began using artificial intelligence and optical character recognition to attempt to transcribe more documents from the Archives. While character-recognition software is adept at reading typed text, the cramped and many-serifed style of medieval handwriting makes distinguishing individual characters difficult for the software. Many individual letters of the alphabet are often confused by human readers of medieval handwriting, let alone a computer program. The team behind In Codice Ratio tried to solve this problem by developing a machine-learning software that could parse this handwriting. Their program eventually achieved 96% accuracy in parsing this type of text.
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.
In October 2018, the Synod of Bishops established the Vatican Information Committee, a body which is responsible for deciding what Vatican-related information is released to the public and how it’s presented. It is led by Paolo Ruffini, the Italian layman who heads the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communications.
In the Dan Brown novel Angels and Demons, main character Robert Langdon visits the Vatican Secret Archives to uncover secrets about the Illuminati. The success of the 2009 film adaptation led the Vatican to open the Archives to a select group of journalists in 2010, in order to dispute the depiction of the Archives given in Brown's novel.