Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (The Vatican Library)

The Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library; NOT where I do research.

Yesterday, after two days (and two manuscripts!) at the Biblioteca Vallicelliana, I made my way to the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana (aka the Vatican Library). All I knew about finding this place was to enter Vatican City through the Sant’Anna Gate. I’d already scoped out this entry to the Papal State a couple of days before, so that was no problem.

I turned up and explained my purpose to a Swiss Guard. When I started in with, ‘Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana?’ I got what sounded like a fast answer in Swiss German (if he was even talking to me), so I said, ‘I’m looking for the Vatican Library?’ He gave me clear directions, most of which I forgot after standing in the queue at the ID deposit for first-time visitors.

Thankfully, a helpful member of the Vatican’s Gendarmerie directed me.

Through a gate in the wall that was wide enough for a car. Through which cars go.

Basically you stand just outside this gate until the coast is clear, then scurry through into a piazza-turned-car park. The Vatican Library is on the right.

There, I showed myself to the porter, who directed me to the Segreteria.

Here, after showing my letters of introduction and filling out paperwork, I got my library card.

The Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana is probably the best organised library I have yet visited. Once I had my card, the porter scanned it and told me which locker was mine. But if I had forgotten, no matter. In the locker room, there is a little panel that you put your card up to, and it tells you your locker number as it unlocks it.


To enter the library, you then go up a wee flight of stairs to the left of ‘Hippolytus’ (attribution disputed), scan your card again, then make your way wherever it is you’d like to go.

I took the stairs to the second floor. Once there, I made two lefts into the manuscript reading room. This room has a fairly decent ceiling, though not as all-out papal glory as one of the rooms on the way there, dating to Leo XIII’s major refurbishment of the Library in the late 1800s.

In the room, I took my card to the desk where it was scanned, and I was signed in. I also wrote my name on a pad next to my locker number and wrote down the number of desk I wished to utilise once there.

Finally, I was signed in! Then I needed to order my first manuscript, Barb. lat. 679. To do this, I went to one of the two computer consoles at the sign-in desk, scanned my card, and then searched for the shelfmark and requested the manuscript using the computer itself. Then I sat and waited.

My manuscript came. I used it. At the end of the day, I handed it over at the desk saying, ‘In deposito,’ as though I actually know Italian.

In the middle of all that, I used the Vatican Library’s café. It’s off a little courtyard-garden that’s just, you know, there. The manuscript reading room overlooks said garden. The café appears to be a quite old, repurposed sanctuary, based upon what looks like an apsidal half-dome with two smaller domes flanking it and a niche or two around which the more modern structure stands.

The prices at the café, you will be pleased to know, are pretty good.

Unlike if you choose to run outside of Vatican City on your lunch break and join the hordes of tourists. I did that today; it will probably be my last time.

This morning I returned to the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. Now all I need do is show my library card to the Swiss Guards and other Vatican security, and I get through — no passport required (the Swiss Guards saluted me this morning!).

I finished off yesterday’s manuscript and two more.

The Vatican Library is, in sum, awesome. Loads and loads of books that are readily accessible to scholars (more manuscripts than anywhere else on earth). Besides the expected scholars consulting Latin and Greek material, I saw a fellow yesterday with an illuminated Syriac manuscript, and the lady beside me was reading Chinese mansucripts today. It is very well organised, having undergone a major renovation during Benedict XVI’s pontificate (perhaps more popes should be academics?), the result of which are the smart cards at every turn.

One final note, in case you are wondering: This is not the Segreto Archivio, aka Secret Archive. That is something else, although it, too, is available to scholars. This is the Pope’s personal library, dating back to the 1400s — it has almost always been open to scholars. The Archive, on the other hand, is the professional archive of the Papacy, which is what ‘Secret’ refers to (‘secret’ vs ‘public’). Since the Archive has spent most of its life as a working part of the Chancery, it was only made public in the late 1800s. It is of similar vintage to the Library, and likely contains nothing scandalous that isn’t already public.


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