As the confidential correspondence of popes, princes and potentates, the Vatican Secret Archives have been jealously guarded for centuries.
But now 100 of the most historically significant documents held by the Vatican’s Secret Archives are to go on public display in Rome – the first and probably last time that they will leave the buttressed stone walls of the tiny city state. The priceless documents span more than a millennium, from the 8th century to modern times, and feature a cast of historical characters ranging from the Knights Templar to Galileo, Martin Luther and Henry VIII. They are normally kept in air-conditioned, climate-controlled rooms in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace, which boasts more than 50 miles of shelves, as well as in a high-security underground bunker. Archivists have gathered them together for an unprecedented exhibition, to be held in Rome’s Capitoline Museums, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the founding of the Secret Archives in their present form.
“It’s an exceptional event,” Father Federico Lombardi, the Vatican’s spokesman, told The Daily Telegraph. “It’s the first time that an exhibition of such significance has been organised. Never have so many documents from the Secret Archive been allowed to leave the Vatican.”
Organisers of the exhibition said it will be “a unique and once-in-a-lifetime event recounting history through its sources.”
Papal documents have been kept ever since the Church was founded, but the Secret Archives have occupied their present location only since 1612, when the repository was reorganised by Pope Paul V.
One of the most interesting documents for British visitors will be a letter written by Mary Queen of Scots a few weeks before her execution for alleged involvement in plots to have Elizabeth I assassinated.
Mary, a rallying point for the Catholic cause, wrote the letter in French to Pope Sixtus V from Fotheringay Castle in Northants in Nov 1586.
The letter, in black ink on yellowing parchment, professes her adherence to the “universal” Catholic Church of Rome, railed against the falsehoods perpetrated by her enemies in England and claimed that the tribunal which had condemned her to death was illegitimate and heretical.