Friday, March 8, 2013

As the world waits for a new Pope, we explore the Vatican's secret archives

In the world according to Dan Brown, the Vatican’s Secret Archives are a shiny hi-tech fortress, protected by bulletproof glass.

But as these pictures show, the antiquated reality, a sprawling labyrinth of corridors and staircases, is very different and far more atmospheric.

As attention focuses on the conclave assembling to elect a new Pope, beneath the paths and lawns of the Vatican’s Pigna Courtyard is a bustling underground world.

Down below are more than 50 miles of shelving, loaded with parchments and yellowing papers dating as far back as the eighth century.

At its heart is a reinforced concrete cube known as the ‘Bunker’.

Inside the complex are priceless treasures: ledgers from noble Roman families, papal registers, diplomatic correspondence and ecclesiastical court papers – millions of pieces of paper and parchment packed with stories of Popes and heretics, battles and geographical discoveries that changed the world.

Gems in the archives include a 1585 document from the nuncio (papal ambassador) in Lisbon warning of a threat to shipping from Sir Francis Drake, a letter from Mary, Queen of Scots, a few weeks before her execution, and a parchment from England – complete with 81 official seals – asking why the Pope was taking so long to annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon.

Also preserved are a papal bull excommunicating Martin Luther and documents from the trial of Galileo.

By Andrew Preston

2 March 2013