Vatican Library

From New World Encyclopedia
Pope Sixtus IV appoints Bartolomeo Platina prefect of the Vatican Library, fresco by Melozzo da Forlì, c. 1477 (Vatican Museums)

The Vatican Library (Latin: Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana) is the library of the Holy See, currently located in Vatican City. It is one of the oldest libraries and contains one of the most significant collections of historical texts including Codex Vaticanus, one of the oldest extant manuscripts of the Bible. Formally established in 1475, though in fact much older, it has 75,000 codices from throughout history and 1.6 million printed books.

The library was created based on Pope Nicholas V's vision of a new Rome with extensive public works that would lure pilgrims and scholars alike to the city. Today the Vatican Library is a significant research library for history, law, philosophy, science, and theology. It is open to anyone who can document their qualifications and research needs.

Historical periods

Scholars have traditionally divided the history of the library into five periods.[1]

  • Pre-Lateran. The initial days of the library, dating from the earliest days of the church, before it moved to the Lateran Palace; only a negligible number of volumes survive from this period, though some are very significant.
  • Lateran. Lasted until the end of the thirteenth century and the reign of Pope Boniface VIII.
  • Avignon. This period saw a great growth in book collection and record keeping by the popes who were in residence in southern France in Avignon between the death of Boniface and the 1370s when the Papacy returned to Rome.
  • Pre-Vatican. From about 1370 to 1446 the library was scattered, with parts in Rome, Avignon and elsewhere.
  • Vatican. Starting around 1448 when the library moved to the Vatican through the present.

Establishing the Vatican library

Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) established the library in the Vatican in 1448 by combining some 350 Greek, Latin, and Hebrew codices inherited from his predecessors with his own collection and extensive acquisitions, among them manuscripts from the imperial library of Constantinople. The Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana was established in 1475.[2]

When its first librarian, Bartolomeo Platina, produced a listing in 1481, the library held over 3500 items, making it by far the largest in the Western world. Around 1587, Pope Sixtus V commissioned the architect Domenico Fontana to construct a new building for the library; it is still in use today. Books were displayed on benches to which they were chained.

Bequests and acquisitions

The Sistine Hall of the Vatican Library.

The library was enriched by several bequests and acquisitions over the centuries.

In 1623, the Palatine Library of Heidelberg containing about 3500 manuscripts was given to the Vatican by Maximilian I, Duke of Bavaria (who had just acquired it as booty in the Thirty Years War) in thanks for the adroit political maneuvers of Pope Gregory XV that had sustained him in his contests with Protestant candidates for the electoral seat. A token 39 of the Heidelberg manuscripts were sent to Paris in 1797 and were returned to Heidelberg at the Peace of Paris in 1815, and a gift from Pope Pius VII of 852 others was made in 1816, including the Codex Manesse. Aside from that, the Palatine Library remains in the Vatican Library to this day.

In 1657, the manuscripts of the Dukes of Urbino were acquired. In 1661 the Greek scholar Leo Allatius was made librarian. Christina of Sweden saw to it that her library, which was for all practical purposes the entire royal library of Sweden of the time, became part of the Vatican Library upon her death in 1689.

Current holdings

A miniature from the Syriac Gospel Lectionary (Vat. Syr. 559), created ca. 1220 near Mosul and exhibiting a strong Islamic influence.

Today, the library holds some 75,000 manuscripts and over 1.6 million printed books, which include some 8,600 incunabula; tens of thousands of sixteenth-century editions (which are included in EDIT16, the ICCU's census of Italian sixteenth-century books) and even more seventeenth-century ones (particularly in the Barberini and Chigi collections), as well as seventeenth- and eighteenth-century books.[3] The Secret Vatican Archives were separated from the library at the beginning of the seventeenth century; they contain another 150,000 items.

Among the most famous holdings of the library is the Codex Vaticanus, the oldest known nearly complete manuscript of the Bible. The Secret History of Procopius was discovered in the library and published in 1623.

In order to make the vast contents of the Vatican Library accessible, in 1927 to 1930, librarians mostly from the United States, with funds from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, worked to classify and catalog the contents of the library. Microfilm records were made of most items.

The Vatican Library is a research library for history, law, philosophy, science and theology, open to anyone who can document their qualifications and their research needs to view the collection. Photocopies for private study of pages from books published between 1801 and 1990 can be requested in person or by mail.

A School of Library Science is associated with the Vatican Library.

In 1959, a Film Library was established.[4] This is not to be confused with the Vatican Film Library, which was established in 1953 in St. Louis, Missouri that contains microfilm records of much of the content of the Vatican Library.

From July 2007 the library was temporarily closed to the public for rebuilding.[5].

In March 2014, the Vatican Library began the project of digitizing its collection of manuscripts, to be made available online.


Folio 22r from the Vatican Virgil contains an illustration from the Aeneid of the flight from Troy.
Folio 14 recto of the Vergilius Romanus contains an author portrait of Virgil.
Folio 125r from the Barberini Gospels: The incipit to John.
Frederick II and his falcon, from a late thirteenth century manuscript of De arte venandi in Biblioteca Vaticana, Pal. lat 1071)
Illustration for De arte venandi
Vatican Croatian Prayer Book
Page from Codex Vaticanus B (Bibl. Vat., Vat. gr. 1209; Gregory-Aland no. B or 03), written ca. 350 C.E. Page containing Bible Texts 2Thess. 3,11-18, Hebr. 1,1-2,2.jpg

Notable manuscripts in the Library include:

  • Vergilius Vaticanus

The Vergilius Vaticanus (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3225, also known as the Vatican Virgil) is an illuminated manuscript containing fragments of Virgil's Aeneid and Georgics made in Rome in about 400 C.E.. It is one of the oldest surviving sources for the text of the Aeneid and is the oldest and one of only three illustrated manuscript of classical literature. The two other surviving illustrated manuscripts of classical literature are the Vergilius Romanus and the Ambrosian Iliad.

  • Vergilius Romanus

The Vergilius Romanus (Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Cod. Vat. lat. 3867), also known as the Roman Vergil, is a fifth century illuminated manuscript of the works of Virgil. It contains the Aeneid, the Georgics], and some of the Eclogues. It is one of the oldest and most important Vergilian manuscripts. It is 332 by 323 mm with 309 vellum folios. It was written in a rustic capitals with 18 lines per page.

  • Barberini Gospels

The Barberini Gospels is an illuminated Hiberno-Saxon manuscript Gospel Book(Rome, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica, Barberini Lat. 570, also known as the Wigbald Gospels), assumed to be of a late eighth century origin. After coming to light following its move to the Vatican Library in 1902 this luxury Gospel book had been largely ignored by the academic community until it became the subject of a doctoral dissertation in 2004. Earlier writing includes some brief comparisons of its iconography with that of its contemporaries and an inconclusive debate regarding the site of its production. There have also been speculations about a colophon, an entreaty for the reader to pray for one Wigbald and its role in providing a connection to a specific historical context.

  • Joshua Roll

The Joshua Roll is an illuminated manuscript, probably of the tenth century created in the Byzantine empire, according to many scholars by artists of the Imperial workshops in Constantinople.[6] It has heavy Greco-Roman influences and is rendered in grisaille. It is incomplete, dimensions of the surviving parts being 31 cm high and about 10 meters long.[7]

The Roll portrays the Old Testament Book of Joshua using a reduced version of the Septuagint text. It depicts the first 12 chapters, when Joshua was engaged in frequent and successful conquest[8] At roughly this time, the Byzantine empire was enjoying military success in its campaigns in the Holy Land. The art is by multiple artists, with the coloring added in a separate step later. The lettering is in majuscule and minuscule forms.[7] Curiously, the images are slanted at ten degrees, in a continuous frieze along the ten meters of the roll. Steven Wander, professor at the University of Connecticut, suggests this may be because the roll was a copy of the actual preparatory sketches or working drawings for a real column, possibly to scale, like the bronze Easter column (Latin 'colonna') for Bishop Bernward in Hildesheim.[9]

  • De arte venandi cum avibus

De arte venandi cum avibus[10] is an illuminated manuscript containing the Latin text of "The art of Falconry" which was written in the thirteenth century by Frederic II von Hohenstaufen and lost in 1248 at Parma. The 2-column 111 folio parchment codex is a copy by King Manfred which reappeared after 1258, and went to the Vatican Library with the manuscripts of the Palatine Library. Besides the treatise on falconry the book contains systematic descriptions of 900 species of birds illuminated by 500 miniatures. The author introduced a binomial taxonomy system similar to that later reinvented or resumed by Linnaeus.

A copy of this book was written by Jean II Dampierre around 1300. An earlier European book on falconry was written by an anonymous noble of Vercelli in the tenth century.

  • Vatican Croatian Prayer Book

Vatican Croatian Prayer Book is the oldest Croatian vernacular prayer book and the finest example of early štokavian vernacular literary idiom.

Written between 1380 and 1400 in Dubrovnik as a transcript and transliteration from older texts composed in a mixture of Church Slavonic and čakavian idioms and written down in Glagolitic and Bosnian Cyrillic scripts, it retained a few phonological and morphological features found in the original manuscripts. The book contains the following parts: Offices of the Virgin Mary according to the rites of the Roman Church; seven penitentiary psalms; Offices of the Holy Cross; Offices for the dead; Offices of the Holy Spirit as well as numerous prayers. The script is the Roman Gothic, embroidered with luxuriantly outlined initials and miniatures. The name of the prayer book reflects the fact that it is held in the Vatican library. The text has become widely known from 1859, when influential Croatian historian Franjo Rački drew attention to it, but the first critical edition did not appear until the twentieth century when Croatian literary historian and philologist Franjo Fancev published the Vatican Croatian prayer book in 1934.

  • Codex Vaticanus

The Codex Vaticanus (The Vatican, Bibl. Vat., Vat. gr. 1209; Gregory-Aland no. B or 03) is one of the oldest extant manuscripts of the Bible. Probably it is slightly older than Codex Sinaiticus, both of which were probably transcribed in the 4th century. It is written in Greek, on vellum, with uncial letters.

Librarians of Vatican Library since 1830

  • Giuseppe Cardinal Albani (23 April 1830 - 3 December 1834)
  • Angelo Cardinal Mai (27 June 1853 - 9 September 1854)
  • Antonio Cardinal Tosti (13 January 1860 - 20 March 1866)
  • Jean-Baptiste-François Pitra (19 January 1869 - 12 May 1879)
  • Alfonso Capecelatro di Castelpagano ( 1899 - 11 November 1912)
  • Francis Aidan Gasquet (9 May 1919 - 5 April 1929)
  • Franz Ehrle (17 April 1929 - 31 March 1934)
  • Giovanni Mercati (1936 - 1957)
  • Eugène-Gabriel-Gervais-Laurent Tisserant (14 September 1957 - 27 March 1971 )
  • Antonio Cardinal Samore (25 January 1974 - 3 February 1983)
  • Alfons Maria Cardinal Stickler (8 September 1983 - 1 July 1988)
  • Antonio María Javierre Ortas (1 July 1988 - 24 January 1992)
  • Luigi Cardinal Poggi (9 April 1992 - 7 March 1998 )
  • Jorge María Mejía (7 March 1998 - 24 November 2003)
  • Jean-Louis Cardinal Tauran (24 November 2003 - 25 June 2007)
  • Raffaele Farina (25 June 2007 - )

The office of Librarian of Vatican Library has been held at the same time as that of Archivist of Vatican Secret Archives since 1957.


  1. Joseph Reese Strayer, "Vatican Library," Dictionary of the Middle Ages.
  2. Vatican Library History. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  3. Printed Books Collection The Vatican Library. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
  4. "Statute of the Vatican Film-Library". Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  5. David Willey, Vatican Library closure irks scholars, BBC news, July 17, 2007. Retrieved August 24, 2019.
  6. Kurt Weitzmann, Joshua Roll: A Work of the Macedonian Renaissance (Princeton University Press, 1948).
  7. 7.0 7.1 Facsimiles of Illuminated Manuscripts of the Medieval Period, The University of Arizona Library Special Collections. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  8. "Now believed to have been assembled in the tenth century on the basis of earlier, individual miniatures adorning volumes of the Octateuch (first eight books of the Bible: Genesis -Deuteronomy and Ruth, Joshua, and Judges), the Joshua Roll presents the illustrated text of the first twelve chapters of the biblical book of Joshua, when Joshua is most active and successful in his conquests." William North, The Joshua Roll. Retrieved September 12, 2019.
  9. Steven Wander, Joshua Roll (Reichert Verlag, 2012, ISBN 3895008540).
  10. Literally "The Art of Hunting with Birds".

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Carlen, Claudia. The Popes and the Vatican Library. Grosse Pointe Farms, MI: American Friends of the Vatican Library, 1984.
  • Grafton, Anthony. Rome Reborn: The Vatican Library and Renaissance Culture. Washington: Library of Congress, in association with, 1993. ISBN 0844407674
  • Labella, Vincenzo, and Daniele Nannuzzi. The wonders of the Vatican Library. Beverly Hills, CA: Melee Entertainment Home Video, 2003. ISBN 0966721462
  • Laubier, Guillaume de, and Jacques Bosser. The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. ISBN 0810946343
  • Matt, Leonard von, Georg Daltrop, and Adriano Prandi. Art Treasures of the Vatican Library. New York: H.N. Abrams, 1970. ISBN 0810905280
  • Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, NY). The Vatican: Spirit and Art of Christian Rome. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1982. ISBN 0870993488
  • Staikos, K. The Great Libraries: From Antiquity to the Renaissance (3000 B.C.E. to A.D. 1600). New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2000. ISBN 1584560185
  • Stille, Alexander. The Future of the Past. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002. ISBN 0374159777
  • Strayer, Joseph Reese. Dictionary of the Middle Ages. 13 vols. New York: Scribner, [1982] 1989. ISBN 0684190737
  • Wander, Steven. Joshua Roll. Reichert Verlag, 2012. ISBN 3895008540
  • Weitzmann, Kurt. Joshua Roll: A Work of the Macedonian Renaissance. Princeton University Press, 1948,.
  • Williman, Daniel, and Karen Corsano. Early Provenances of Latin Manuscripts in the Vatican Library: Vaticani Latini and Borghesiani. Città del Vaticano: Biblioteca apostolica vaticana, 2003. ISBN 8821007340

External links

All links retrieved May 3, 2023.


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