The film shows it as a state of the art building with bullet proof glass and electronic records but in reality the archive is very different with a painstakingly complied handwritten card index.
A man looks at a scroll of the Trial of the Templars of France as the sections of the Vatican Secret Archive go on display
It is set across two floors below the Vatican it is built to resist the effects of an atomic blast and is known affectionately to the archivists who work there as ‘the bunker.’
Only accredited scholars – and not the general public – are allowed in the reading rooms once their credentials have been thoroughly checked out and the documents are brought to them by white gloved archivists – moving from your desk unchecked is strictly forbidden.
But today an exhibition of the documents opened at the Capitoline Museum in Rome with Pope Benedict’s number two, Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, being among the first to visit the display which is called ‘Lux in Arcana’ (Latin for Light in the Archives) which will run until September and which is expected to draw thousands of visitors.
As he left the exhibition Cardinal Bertone made a reference to a series of leaks from the Vatican in recent weeks which have seen documents appearing in the Italian media detailing allegations of corruption as well as an alleged plot on Pope Benedict XVI’s life, in what has unsurprisingly been dubbed ‘Vatileaks’ and created a poisonous atmosphere within the Holy See.
Cardinal Bertone said: ‘These are the only true documents which should be focused on and what strikes me is their history.’
Vatican officials have picked 100 documents from the 1,000′s kept in the Archive which will span 1,200 years from the 8th Century right up until the 20th century.
Among them will be papers relating to the Galilei’s trial 400 years ago and a letter from 1530 signed by British MPs asking Pope Clement VII to grant Henry VIII an annulment.
His split from first wife Catherine of Aragon led to Henry’s breakaway from the Catholic Church and the establishment of the Church of England and it is considered a ‘priceless document of great historical significance.’
In historical terms, the document has only recently been discovered, having been found in 1926 by Angelo Mercati, Prefect of the Archives in 1926, hidden in a chest built under a chair.
The peers warn the Pope in no uncertain terms that ‘a refusal of annulment would require recourse to extreme measures for the good of the kingdom which we would not hesitate to take,’ and was sent from London in July 1530 taking two months to arrive on the Pope’s desk.
A letter from the Ojibwe Indians of Ontario to Leo XIII, written on bark birch and which thanks him for sending missionaries to convert them and it colourfully dates the letter as ‘where there is much grass in the month of the flowers’ (May 1887)
Sensitive letters from before and during the Second World War were not released – the period is a contentious one as many historians have questioned whether then Pope Pius XII did enough to speak out against Adolf Hitler.
In Britain National Archives are available after a set period of time but the Vatican follows a different formula with papers and documents only being released one Pope at a time.