Tag Archives: vatican city

Many Romes

Successful shopping

Successful shopping

Two days ago (my first day in Rome), I walked from the British School at Rome (BSR) to Sant’Anna Gate of Vatican City. Just to see how long it would take me. 45 minutes. Apparently I’m slow — somewhere out there is a long-legged Catholic who can do it in 22. Nonetheless, having timed the journey, I’ve decided that Tram 19, which passes right in front of the BSR, is more my style. If I catch it before 8:30 AM.

Having arrived in Vatican City, I decided to do some browsing of tourist shops. I wanted a Rome-themed key chain for my Roman keys, a nice Swiss Guard toy soldier (I’d seen one once but failed to locate it when in the mood to buy), and maybe (if they exist) a Leo the Great-themed souvenir (to my knowledge, these seem not to).

I don’t know how many tourist shops I went into. They are legion and all in a row beside the walls of Vatican City on Via di Porta Angelica. You can buy one of a vast array of rosaries — who knew something so simple could come so varied? You can buy one of a smaller selection of saint statues or medals — occasional Italian mediaeval or Byzantine-style icons and prints thereof, maybe a print of a Renaissance saint painting. A vast range of Pope Francis souvenirs is present, with (St) John Paul II ( JP2) coming in second. The odd Pope Benedict XVI souvenir still lingers here and there. Small replicas of St Peter’s also abound. And crucifixes. In the mix are a variety of more generic Rome souvenirs, largely focussed on ancient art, history, and architecture, or the Trevi Fountain.

Just around the corner from these can also be found a whole other variety of Catholic store — liturgical outfitters, for all your ecclesiastical needs! Clerical shirts, chasubles, stoles, chalices, patens, censers, tabernacles (!), monstrances, all displayed proudly in the window. Apparently you can also buy purple bishop socks and red cardinal socks. Because why not?

Furthermore, just off St Peter’s Square is the official book shop of the Vatican Press (not sure what they actually call themselves). Lots of Catholic books in there in Italian, Spanish, Polish, English, German, Japanese, and others. The English books, besides translations of official Vatican and papal documents, looked mostly to be aimed at an American audience.

This is the commercial side of one of the many Romes. This is Catholic Rome. Or, rather, one of the Catholic Romes. This is pilgrim/spiritual tourist Rome. One of the shops I visited was even called Al Pellegrino Cattolico. The other aspect of this Rome is found in basilicas and churches, in religious artwork and papal appearances and papal audiences. It is found in the catacombs.

I was originally going to jokingly call this post ‘Two Romes‘, as a nod to Rome and Constantinople, and then surprise people by discussing two Romes in actual Rome. However, I realised in bed last night that there are more than merely two Romes. Besides the tourist/pilgrim side of Catholic Rome, there is also the functioning world of Roman Catholicism in Rome — this Rome is not about tourist/pilgrim shops or visiting the seven pilgrim churches. This Catholic Rome runs and maintains the pilgrim churches. But it also includes the various persons in the Vatican who run the Roman Catholic Church. It also includes the various religious orders who have an established presence in the City. It also includes the various Roman Catholic research/training institutes. Rome actually is the physical heartland of Roman Catholicism, much more than Canterbury ever could be for Anglicanism.

So there are at least two Catholic Romes

They exist and overlap. They also live cheek by jowl with many other Romes, however. There is ancient Rome, visited by tourists, studied by Classicists, beneath the surface of the City. There is historic Rome beyond the classical, visited and studied by the same people. And in the midst of the scholars, tourists, pilgrims, and prelates, there are the modern Romans and the Italian government. All of these Romes exist and overlap and are all about the city, as when one visits the Pantheon (now a church).

This truly is the Eternal City, and its fascination will never cease to hold me.

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.