Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Vatican Library: A Monument to Humanism Modernizes

The Vatican Library is simply the biggest and most important library in the world. I first became interested in this great institution during my years as a seminarian in the Jesuit Order. More recently, I began reading a book that Barnes & Noble had commissioned in the 1970s, I believe, that was written by an American woman of Italian heritage whose scholarly life revolved around the "Vat," as scholars call this gigantic monument to the collecting and hoarding of books, manuscripts, and all sorts of visual art over the last five hundred and fifty years.

I recall walking through a wing of the Vat back in the early '70s after the Sistine Chapel was closed around 4PM in the afternoon. The rooms led to the interior of St. Peter's basilica, so the long journey through thousands of ancient tomes was a sort of being cast out of the Garden of Eden after eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Here's an excerpt from the Abstract in the New Yorker, which I subscribe to, but which I'm unable to access on line at the moment:
ABSTRACT: LETTER FROM ROME about the Vatican Library.
One day early in the sixteen-twenties, an archivist working in the library of the Holy See stumbled upon a text of Procopius’s “Historia Arcana” (“The Secret History”), which painted a devastating new portrait of the Emperor Justinian and his inner circle as venal, corrupt, immoral, and un-Christian. The discovery set off a bitter debate about just who Justinian was, and raised questions about the way history is written. The tale of its discovery also exemplifies some of the paradoxical problems that have long haunted the institution in which it was found: the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the Vatican Apostolic Library—or, as its present-day users call it, the Vat. One problem is obvious: the Vat’s collection, which has been accreting since the mid-fourteen-hundreds, is so vast that even the people who run it haven’t always known what they’re sitting on top of. Another is that although the library was founded as, essentially, a public information resource, the Vatican itself has had a historically vexed relationship to knowledge, power, secrecy, and authority. Recently, the Vat has been trying to address at least some of these problems. In September, the library reopened following a three-year-long closing—the final stage of a decades-long renovation of its premises and modernization of its technologies. The texts now enjoy the benefits afforded by online searches, enhanced cataloguing, digitally scanned imaging, and even electronic tagging. Librarian Massimo Ceresa took the writer on a tour of the Vat. The origins of the Vat can be traced to Pope Nicholas V’s brief but energetic reign, from 1447 to 1455. Nicholas left eleven hundred Greek and Latin manuscripts to a successor, Sixtus IV, the second of the Vat’s three Papal founders. There were occasional attempts at improving access. In 1883, Leo XIII opened the Vat to qualified researchers, and he also formalized the relationship between the Cardinal Librarian, the titular head of the library, and the Prefect, the cleric who oversees the Vat’s day-to-day activities. But as recently as 1993, two-thirds of the Vat’s holdings had still not even been catalogued. Depending on whom you talk to, the movement to update, computerize, and digitally disseminate the Vat was either an inevitable step forward or the brainchild of one man: Father Leonard Boyle, who was appointed Prefect of the library in 1984 and was ousted in 1997, after his dealings with some American fund-raising associates resulted in lawsuits involving the Vatican. Mentions Cardinal Jorge María Mejía. Mentions the importance of the Vat’s collection to scholars around the world. It’s possible to see the selection of Raffaele Farina as Boyle’s successor as the Curia’s way of reasserting authority. The current Prefect, Monsignor Cesare Pasini has the expertise of a legitimate scholar and the hands-on experience of a distinguished librarian. The writer describes holding the manuscript of Procopius’s “Secret History” in his hands.

My Barnes & Noble book about the Vatican Library described dusty cavernous buildings crammed with hundreds of thousands, nay, millions of uncatelogued manuscripts which detailed obscure nooks and crannies of history in hundreds of languages and tens of thousands of sources. For instance, I remember that the entire diplomatic history of the Venetian Republic had somehow ended up in the Vat after Napoleon ended this thousand-year-old Republic's life in 1805 or so. The Vatican's own diplomatic correspondance for five centuries was also resting uncatelogued, for all practical purposes, in the underground vaults and the sunlit towers of the Vat. The anecdotal range of the semi-catalogued collection back in the seventies was awesiome, and I seriously doubt that in the three years that the Vat was closed for updating and refurbishing and cataloguing has been a successfully complete compendium of all of the original historical and intellectual treasures this wonderful "Library of All Libraries" possesses.

The New Yorker has an online slide show of a small number of the Vat's treasures, including papyri from the 2nd c. AD.

The Vatican Apostolic Library's link can be found at this official Vatican City State site.

Here is the awesome English-language url for the Vat. Knock yourselves out...!

A New York Times article from three years ago relays a little of the anxiety the shut-down of the VAT caused scholars and other seekers of truth back in 2007. A slide show is attached.

PBS Newshour had a segment December 31st on St. John's Abbey in Minnesota, which I visited as a Jesuit seminarian, and their massive project to save many rare manuscripts and other archives in a safe digitized environment.

Also, as a Jesuit seminarian, I studied philosophy for a year at St. Louis University, where The Vatican Film Library, an offshoot of the Vat, is located. While I studied in the student library at SLU, I don't recall seeing the VFL's collection there. I do believe Fr. Walter Ong, SJ, mentioned the collection, however, during his classes at SLU, some of which I attended.

Parenthetically, Daniel Henninger at the Wall Street Journal has an interesting piece on how the fight of the Catholic Church to protect its various flocks is a fight that western civilization should be waging for its own values.

I am itching to see what the Vatican Library has made accessible online for the curious bibliophile like myself. Happy New Year and Happy New Decade for all us wanderers and questing souls whose reach always exceeds our grasp...!

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