The Vatican Library – A History

Pope Sixtus IV Appoints Bartolomeo Platina Prefect of the Vatican Library, fresco by Melozzo da Forlì, 1477, now in the Vatican Museums

The Vatican Library in Rome is a collection of Roman Catholic manuscripts which was shrouded in secrecy for centuries. The oldest texts date back 1500 years.

Millions of people visit the Vatican every year but most don’t realise the Vatican is home to a library of over 2 million texts. The library is open to researchers from around the world and welcomes thousands of visitors each year.

Rome has had a library since around the 4th century AD. But the first modern library, which is a forerunner of the one which exists today, was founded by Pope Nicholas V after he was elected Pope in 1447.

The Medieval Library

Pope Nicholas inherited a Vatican library which already contained around 350 Latin, Greek and Hebrew volumes. He was so interested in the collection that he added some of his own books. He had other texts transcribed and commissioned specialists to make copies of other important works that he wished to see in the library. When he died in 1455, the library collection had increased almost five times to around 1,500 texts; the largest collection in Europe at that time. Noble and Royal families regularly donated manuscript collections to the archives.

Fifteen years later, Pope Sixtus IV made provision for the first librarian, Bartolomeo Platina, and the library moved to a new purpose-built site. There were 4 rooms for books, including a secret library, which was for manuscripts that the Vatican did not wish the public to use freely.

These texts would have included rare or fragile documents that could have been damaged by regular handling. But scholars were able to use the rest of the collection and books were regularly lent out to researchers. Nowadays, scholars are required to bring a letter of introduction from their university or institution before being allowed access to the library.

Pope Sixtus’s New Library

In 1587, Pope Sixtus V commissioned a new library building, a huge 70 metres long and 15 metres wide. The library continued to thrive and wealthy patrons regularly donated books and manuscripts. At the beginning of the 17th century, Pope Paul V established a library cataloguing system which is still used by Vatican librarians today.

The contents of the library were briefly taken by the Napoleonic armies but were restored to the papacy in 1815, after which important collections continued to be donated. These included the Borghese manuscripts (1891) and the Pattetta collection (1945).

The Vatican Library Today

As well as the collections of books and manuscripts, there are also over 100,000 prints, drawings, maps and engravings and around 330,000 Greek Roman and Papal coins and medals.

The Vatican Library is very much a living and growing institution, with 6,000 new volumes being bought by, or donated to, the library every year. Eighty staff are employed in 5 departments; manuscripts and archival collections, printed books and drawings, accessions and cataloguing, coin collections and musei and restoration and photography.

The Vatican library exists to help to uphold and preserve the culture of the Roman Catholic Church. With over two million texts in the collections, it continues to be a valued resource for historians and scholars, just as has been for over 1,500 years.