20 March 2017

Visiting the Vatican Library

For most medievalists, the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana is the big one, one of the largest, oldest and grandest libraries in the world, with over 75,000 codices, including the Palatinus and Reginensis collections. Its documented history, and the prizes in its collection, go back to the very beginning of the middle ages, and beyond. Actually consulting the library is not, however, as tough as this formidable reputation and history might suggest – but it does require some preparation. The first and most important thing to be aware of, before attempting a visit, is the portion of the year the library closes: most of July and all of August, as well as half of September. Don’t get caught out – though a visit to Rome is of course a great pleasure regardless, it would be a shame to waste the time and expense of visiting in summer. In addition, the library follows the calendar of Vatican City, not that of Italy, and thus closes for some special festivals and holidays, generally of a religious nature, so be sure to consult the library’s calendar before you begin to plan a trip. Undergraduates cannot, except in very specific circumstances, consult the library collections. Some time before you arrive, it is probably polite to email the director of admissions, Dr Federica Orlando, but this is not absolutely essential. As far as I’ve discovered, she can best be contacted through the Vatican Library website itself, which has its own messaging system and requires you to log in beforehand. Otherwise, before your first visit, make certain you have with you, at the very least: 1) Your passport, or other form of identification, though passport is preferable; 2) Your reference letter. The website suggests that an additional document, a ‘letter of surety’, may be required; but I did not need this when I entered, and neither has anyone else I’ve spoken to, so I would suggest that this is not worth going to the trouble. Finally, the Admissions Office has particular hours and is not open in the afternoon on Monday, Wednesday or Friday or during lunchtime, and you can’t enter the library without their say, so be sure to visit during the stated hours: Monday to Friday, 8:45 – 12:00, and Tuesday and Thursday, 15:00 – 16:00.

Entering the Library

The cupola of St Peter’s, Vatican.

Your first visit will be the most complex. To enter, you must pass through the Porta Sant’Anna, a special gate into the Vatican that your average tourist never gets to go through. Approaching Saint Peter’s Basilica along the Vatican’s east wall, straight from Ottaviano metro station and the Piazza di Risorgimento along the Via di Porta Angelica, the Porta Sant’Anna appears on your right before the Piazza della Città Leonina. It’s difficult to miss, as cars can turn into it, and three Swiss Guard are attendant at all times. Once you’ve visited a few times, the Swiss Guard start to salute you as you enter, which was always a great thrill to me since it makes you feel rather important, but on your first visit you need to convince them before you can cross the threshold into Vatican City. They’re there to stop tourists wandering in, so just stride confidently as if you have something important to do, and they’ll happily stop you in your tracks to find out what that is. They do speak English, so simply make sure to say you are a scholar visiting the Vatican Library. They will then guide you to the police station just up ahead, which is your next port of call. The Vatican police here may not speak English, so a bit of Italian does come in handy, but you are simply here to get your guest pass, so hopefully you shouldn’t have too much trouble: “Sono qui per la Biblioteca Vaticana” will hopefully be sufficient. The policemen at the round desk will take your passport or form of identification and give you a fetching badge with the Vatican crest on it. This is your pass to continue for your first entrance into the Library. Out of the police station you continue onwards up a slight incline, past the Vatican Post Office and a small car park, and through a set of gates, into the Cortile del Belvedere, a car park for Vatican employees and a fountain in the middle. To the far right of the Cortile is the Biblioteca Apostolica. There are two doors here, the first one you see on the right is the one you want.

This nearer door is where the reception and Admissions Office are to be found. Ignore the stairs with the formidable security system and you’ll be directed to the office of Dr Orlando along the corridor to the right. When I visited, Dr Orlando was very welcoming and helpful, so I’m certain most scholars can expect the same treatment! She will take your photo, and give you an introduction to the library rules and regulations, and she speaks English. The photo she takes will be used for your official library card, a great souvenir that can be kept and re-used for a future visit. This card is the most important artefact you’ll need for your every visit to the Library, no matter how much or how little you are planning to take advantage of it, so keep it close! On your first visit it can be charged for 20 or even 30 days, depending on how long you plan to be in Rome. I believe you can then re-charge it for the same time if you visit again within the next five years. From now on, you can show it to the Swiss Guard and police at the Porta Sant’Anna to get into Vatican City freely, and it will allow you to pass through the security gates into the library. It also allows you to summon manuscripts to be fetched for you in the Manuscript Room, though more on that later. Dr Orlando may also give you a wifi login and password, if you want them. The Vatican Library’s wifi is very slow, and does not allow certain sites simply by stopping before you get there (Facebook being blocked was useful for stopping procrastination, my university webmail being on the same blacklist was somewhat less so), so it may not be worth the bother at all; but it does allow access to the catalogue and to digitised manuscripts. The locker room is to the left of Dr Orlando’s office when you’re facing it. The system here relies only on your card. Simply swipe it at one of the readers, and your locker will automatically open for you, the number flashing on the screen to let you know which it is. You absolutely cannot bring any bags, food, pens or anything covered up into the library: only a computer or tablet, ONLY PENCILS, and paper, as well as any books you may have brought yourself. Mobile phones are not allowed. So leave them and everything else in your locker, which has space to hang up coats if you’re visiting in winter. Afterwards, simply close the locker and it will shut behind you. When you need to open the locker once again, simply swipe your card on the reader. Finally, on your way out after your first day, do remember to stop by the police station again, and drop off your badge to get your passport back. It is all too easy to forget it, but the Swiss Guard should stop you if you’ve still got a badge on during your attempted escape!

At the Library Day to Day

Climbing up a long flight of stairs with a lift shaft in the centre, you will come to the library on the second floor. The room you enter is the main reading room, the aula (beautifully decorated), and it’s lined with the reference books, including catalogues and periodicals published in Vatican City. These books go on into the Aula Leonina, on the side of the Secret Archives, but all are free to take from the shelves. Once you choose a desk, you will find numbered panels on it, and these can be put into the shelf to replace a book you’ve taken. Maps printed on the walls are a guide to the complex cataloguing system of these books. Strangely enough, the system for ordering the books in storage which are not freely available on the shelves is somewhat more antiquated than the system for manuscripts, but is simple, so I will go through it quickly. It is crucial to note that this system for printed books is only open 9–12 in the morning, so it is best to be certain of what you need before you enter the library. First, fill in the spreadsheet on the desk near where the staff are, with the abbreviation ‘MSS’ for the manuscript room by your name, then take one of the slips and fill in the required information, including shelfmark. The book should be fetched in 20 minutes. If you are only ordering books here, you may sit at one of the desks in the Reading Room. However, you will probably need to situate yourself in the Manuscript Reading Room before you order anything from the main reading room. This is to your immediate right. The first room you pass through holds several computers, where it is simplest to examine the library’s digitised manuscripts. Each one has a card reader beside it, where you can place your card, and then it allows you to enter the manuscript you wish to examine. Non-digitised manuscripts can’t be ordered here, but black and white microfilms may also be available. This room also shelves the standard guides to most systems of palaeography, and some of the earlier manuscript catalogues.

Turning to your left, you see the manuscript reading room. There are a number of desks on each side of the hall, and the staff desk is at the far end. Choose a seat, and be sure to make note of the number engraved in metal next to it. That’s important for what comes next. At the staff desk is another spreadsheet, where you must sign in and put your seat number in the relevant column. This may seem complex, but very much becomes routine after one or two visits. The staff can help you, but they generally do only speak Italian. But you only need to speak to a computer to get your manuscripts, which is very modern for a library quite so ancient! The computers in question are just in front of the desk, with a similar format to those just outside. Swipe your card, and enter your manuscript into the database, selecting its particular collection (Vat.lat, Reg.lat, Palat.lat. and so on) from a drop-down menu. From here, you can queue several manuscripts to order. These are brought to the front desk in batches, anything from 20 minutes later. But you are only allowed five during a day’s visit, three in the morning slot (9–12), and two in the afternoon slot (2–4). In the lunch break between 12 and 2 pm, you are not allowed to order manuscripts at all. It is therefore worth preparing and planning, particularly if your visit is short. If a manuscript is digitised already, the system will not let you order it, and you will have to negotiate with the staff. Obviously, your success depends on the fragility and preciousness of the manuscript in question. I did not have much luck here, but your mileage may vary. Probably it is worth bringing a letter from your institution, in Italian, dealing with the particular manuscript in question. However, the system does allow for remarkable freedom since, once you are inside, you can order as many manuscripts as the limit allows without any problems. So, your original letter seeking permission to enter the library need not be exhaustive at all, and you can happily go on to order more manuscripts, should your research turn up something more than you expected in the course of your Vatican stay – very likely in a library so rich and full of untapped depths. The staff will also keep manuscripts on hold for you, if you plan to visit again in the next couple of days. The system suggests this will only apply for a few days, but I found that manuscripts tended to be held until you asked them to be put back.

One of the reading rooms inside the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

Final Details

Since you cannot bring food into the library itself, even stored, your best option for lunch is definitely the library café. It stands in the courtyard alongside the main reading room aula, suspended between the Manuscript Room and the Secret Archives. I was told (but cannot verify) that these two poles of the library may not get along, so the courtyard and café are something of a no-man’s land between two competing factions with a strict ceasefire in operation. In any case, the little café, built over an old fountain, has great coffee, water, and sandwiches and salads. It is all sold with Vatican prices, i.e. without tax, so is a great bargain! Coffee and lunch can easily come below €5. There are some places to sit; it was rarely full when I was there, but it is not large. On a nice day, you can probably get away with eating out in the courtyard, if the grand surroundings don’t intimidate you too much.

Recent catalogues specifically of the Vatican library manuscript collection include:

Arnold van Lantschoot, Inventaire des manuscrits syriaques des fonds Vatican (490–631) (Vatican City, 1965).

Pierre Salmon, Les Manuscrits liturgiques latins de la Bibliothèque Vaticane, 5 vols (Vatican City, 1986–72).

Stephan Kuttner and Reinhard Elze, A Catalogue of Canon and Roman Law Manuscripts in the Vatican Library, 2 vols (Vatican City, 1986–87).

Binyamin Richler, Malachi Beit-Arié and Nurit Pasternak, Hebrew Manuscripts in the Vatican Library (Vatican City, 2008).

The Vatican library is, of course, engaged in an extensive and wide-ranging digitisation project, among the most formidable of such projects in Europe. Those currently digitised are to be found on the DigiVatLib platform. Manuscripts and incunabula, sorted according to their particular collection, may be found here. Until recently, all the digitised manuscripts on the platform were in full colour and high quality, but the library recently decided to put all its microfilmed texts online as well. This has meant that more manuscripts are available than ever before, but the microfilms are not ideal for close viewing, or reading anything other than the clearest text. Still, it is nice to have them available publicly in some form, and they allow you to look for interesting features in advance of your visit, or check any curiosities you suspect you might have imagined afterwards! An invaluable guide to the often inscrutable process of the Vatican digitisation is the website of Jean-Baptiste Piggin, journalist and historian, who has rather selflessly devoted himself to keeping track of what goes online – which sometimes means managing formidable volumes of content. From there, links take you to the relevant shelfmarks.

Finally, the University of Heidelberg has digitised those manuscripts of Heidelberg University Library that ended up in the Vatican (Bibliotheca Palatina digital); and the library of Lorsch Abbey, some of whose manuscripts also ended up in the Vatican (Bibliotheca Laureshamensis digital).

The Vatican’s online cataloging system generally provides you with a complete and up-to-date bibliography related to the manuscript for which you search, but does not offer much in the way of dating/location, so you have to search that out yourself. Dr Orlando does give you a very comprehensive sheet of paper detailing the library’s rules, so make sure to read this and follow them. Entering the Vatican Library is a great privilege, and it is, despite its formidable reputation (perhaps inspired by such luminary works of scholarship as The Da Vinci Code), actually an extremely modern, efficient and friendly institution, particularly for those of us who consult manuscripts. The staff I encountered were very ready to help, and enthusiastic about sharing the bounty of the library with visitors and the wider public, as their amazing digitisation project attests. There are few other libraries where one could so easily rub shoulders with pipe-smoking monks in Cistercian habits, hopping on and off computers! So long as we all behave ourselves, the library will continue to yield amazing insight and scholarship long into the future.

By Arthur Westwell.

Do you have any questions or additions to make to this blog post, based on your own experience? Get in touch with us on Twitter or by email, or ask Arthur yourself.

Visiting the Vatican Library

One thought on “Visiting the Vatican Library

  • January 3, 2018 at 6:12 pm

    Thanks for this incredibly helpful description! I’m a grad student and am planning to visit the Vatican this spring to see manuscripts, but I’ve been concerned about gaining access. It’s wonderful to have a detailed review of the process.

    God, I hope I’ll rub shoulders with pipe-smoking Cistercian monks.


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