The Vatican archives are being digitized.
March 23, 2014 7:10 AM   Subscribe

The Vatican is digitizing its massive trove of ancient documents to make them available to the world for free online.

The Vatican Library main page. (Among other things, there's Digitized Manuscripts and Digitized Incunabula.)

The Vatican has also been working on digitization with Oxford University's Bodleian Libraries. Here's that project's page, including a Gutenberg Bible and a tenth-century Greek Bible.

A press release from NTT, the Japanese company working with the Vatican to do the digitizing.

Previously on Metafilter, 2002: The Library of Congress's exhibit on the Vatican. Here's the section containing Henry VIII's love letter to Ann Boleyn, whom he would later have beheaded: "wryttyn with the hand off hym whyche I wolde wer yours". If anyone has any information on how those letters ended up in the Vatican archives, I'd like to hear about it.
(Hat tip to flitcraft, who still contributes to Metafilter after all these years)
posted by Jacob Knitig (28 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
Opus Dei have hidden all the good stuff.
posted by Mezentian at 7:15 AM on March 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


If anyone has any information on how those letters ended up in the Vatican archives, I'd like to hear about it.

My guess would be espionage. Henry VIII and the Vatican weren't exactly on good terms, and the Catholics had plenty of spies.
posted by dortmunder at 7:19 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


There's gonna be trouble when they find the missing disclaimer, "Don't try this at home."
posted by sonascope at 7:43 AM on March 23, 2014


Wonder if this will include the contents of the Index Librorum Prohibitorum. Do they copy of the Necronomicon somewhere deep in the vaults?
posted by murphy slaw at 7:58 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


The TLD is for Italy. I thought the Vatican had its own TLD. Weird.
posted by LogicalDash at 8:06 AM on March 23, 2014


There's a Vatican Library landing site that's on vatican.va, but all the content is at vatlib.it.
posted by zamboni at 8:17 AM on March 23, 2014


If anyone has any information on how those letters ended up in the Vatican archives, I'd like to hear about it.

My guess is it was submitted as evidence in his annulment proceedings?
posted by empath at 8:27 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


Completely changes my view of Angels & Demons now.
posted by MoonOrb at 8:27 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


"If anyone has any information on how those letters ended up in the Vatican archives, I'd like to hear about it."

Evidence in the various divorce/annulment and adultery trials, I believe.

All of this is available to researchers, but available European-library style where you have to get letters of introduction proving you're not just some jackass who wants to look at old texts, and there's a lot more gatekeeping. ("Angels and Demons" would have been less dumb if Langdon was familiar *even a little bit* with how European research libraries work.) The combination of restrictions to protect old, delicate texts and Euro-style restrictions to legitimate researchers makes them seem more forbidden than they are. The digitization is wonderful because it will make these available to the public directly, not just through researchers, and will help preserve these very delicate texts while allowing more people to research and examine them and just be looky-loos at cool old texts. What good is a library if nobody can use it because the books are all too delicate?

The Vatican "Secret" Archives, which are separate, are "secret" in the sense of "secretarial" ... they're the state papers, account books, etc. They're released to researchers in the same way that the U.S. releases White House records and Top Secret records -- as the sensitive data in them stops being sensitive (75 years is their general rule, but they have released things early (some WWII papers) or late, when things are either of extreme interest or timeliness, or when they're protecting a reputation until someone innocent is dead). So right now the Vatican has released its "secret" archives up through Pius XI, who was Pope until 1939, which is why a few years ago you saw a bunch of news stories about the Vatican's relationship with Nazi Germany leading up to WWII, as those state papers were suddenly available.

For all the plots that hinge on the Vatican Archives being hard to access and full of cool secret stuff, they're actually pretty open for access -- as libraries of old rare texts go -- and mostly people know what's in them. It is great they're finally digitizing, though. The Vatican has also historically run a lot of its departments really badly (their financials have been a HOT MESS for HUNDREDS OF YEARS), but they have run their archives really, really well for centuries on end and been generally very friendly to scholars since, oh, the 1480s.

They have a film library, too. Just because they like to library. One imagines one day the Vatican will maintain a software reference and research library with video games in it. (And then one of course imagines 600 years from now, Robot Dan Brown writing a novel about researchers who must get to the secret Vatican document, "Super Mario Brothers," about the Italian brothers who coded a secret map to the burial place of Moses in a video game only accessible to those with the highest-level fast-twitch mastery, because otherwise the New New New World Order will destroy the world by exploding Moses's Ebola-filled body over New Paris or something.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:48 AM on March 23, 2014 [53 favorites]


Eyebrows McGee: "(And then one of course imagines 600 years from now, Robot Dan Brown writing a novel about researchers who must get to the secret Vatican document, "Super Mario Brothers," about the Italian brothers who coded a secret map to the burial place of Moses in a video game only accessible to those with the highest-level fast-twitch mastery, because otherwise the New New New World Order will destroy the world by exploding Moses's Ebola-filled body over New Paris or something.)"

I would buy this book.
posted by chavenet at 8:52 AM on March 23, 2014 [8 favorites]


The Physical Phenomena of Mysticism by Herbert Thurston does not have a good title. If I had been his editor I would have titled it Review of Evidence for miracles in lives of Catholic saints. It is a fascinating book. His premise is that if there is any good evidence for the supernatural the best place to find it is in the Catholic church's proceedings on whether or not to beatify and sanctify. They have legalistic processes with an advocate for the devil arguing that the evidence for Saint Theresa (or whoever) is fraudulent, and they file the arguments and testimony.

He complains at several points that the best documents are deep in the Vatican library stacks and he could not get to it.
posted by bukvich at 8:58 AM on March 23, 2014 [1 favorite]


All of this is available to researchers, but available European-library style where you have to get letters of introduction proving you're not just some jackass who wants to look at old texts, and there's a lot more gatekeeping.

As a jackass who wants to look at old texts, I take exception to this European elitism! Although it's pretty cool that because my public library went through this process for me I now have an I.D. card in my wallet that identifies me as a "Harvard Visiting Researcher".

They didn't even know they could do that and when I brought it in to the library to show them they all gathered 'round with envious eyes and said "Ooh, I want one!"
posted by XMLicious at 9:09 AM on March 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


I wonder how much will be redacted. The church has its reputation to uphold you know.
posted by three blind mice at 9:11 AM on March 23, 2014


Started poking through the archives and it's glorious, but of course much of the site isn't in English. Thank goodness for Google Translate or my silly monolingualism (I don't count the smidges of Latin and French) would be a real problem.

I love living in the future.
posted by immlass at 10:06 AM on March 23, 2014


If they get any of the several manuscript talmudim and rabbinic responsa online in time, my PhD research just got a lot less expensive. But now how will I justify a travel grant for Rome for six months?!
posted by Dreidl at 10:45 AM on March 23, 2014


you need modern roman rabbis to help you interpret them.
posted by bruce at 12:25 PM on March 23, 2014


Wasn't the Vatican Archives said to have included the (pre-internet) world's largest collection of pornography, with specimens dating back to ancient times, all meticulously catalogued? Will any of this be digitised?
posted by acb at 1:04 PM on March 23, 2014


Thank goodness for Google Translate or my silly monolingualism (I don't count the smidges of Latin and French)

Mary Beard on the peculiarities of Google Translate and Latin
posted by IndigoJones at 1:33 PM on March 23, 2014


acb: "Wasn't the Vatican Archives said to have included the (pre-internet) world's largest collection of pornography, with specimens dating back to ancient times, all meticulously catalogued? Will any of this be digitised?"

It probably doesn't, but the goal is to eventually digitize the entire manuscript collection, which is 82,000 documents; they're starting with 3,000 over the next four years.

So the answer is, yes, there'll be smutty bits digitized along with the rest of it, but probably no giant collection of historic porn. From my observation of past practice since the Vatican started with various digitization and online publication and so forth, they will probably start with a mix of a) documents of great scholarly interest that lots of scholars want to access in the Archives (which may be boring to lay people, and many of which will be in Latin and Greek) and b) documents of significant historical interest to the average person, like, the Anne Boleyn mash notes, which may not be of much scholarly import but make regular people go, "Huh! History!" Probably they'll digitize some travel reports from missionaries or diplomats traveling for the first time to China or the Americas, some letters from well-known historical people, snarky reports on Napoleon's personal habits, that sort of thing. They'll probably pick a broad selection from around the world for those human-interest-y things, to try to get people in different countries engaged. (Like imagine a letter from the Archbishop of Baltimore reporting to the Pope on the election of Abraham Lincoln ... it wouldn't really tell us anything we didn't know, but Americans would looooooooooove that and it would get tons of play in the U.S. press.)

Don't think of the Vatican libraries as government functionaries in a highly-secretive government, think of them as custodians of one of the world's coolest museum and archive collections who want to preserve all the priceless treasures they've been given guardianship of, but who also want to be like, "YOU WANNA SEE THIS OTHER COOL MANUSCRIPT I HAVE? YOU WANNA? YOU WANNA?" Mostly the archivists there are library/history/archive super-nerds who want everyone else to be excited and nerd out too.

Also, and I know this surprises some people, they're not really that embarrassed about things that happened in 1702. Generally the 75-year rule bleeds the embarrassment out of bad decisions pretty thoroughly (and that's the theory behind MOST countries holding governmental archives private for a certain number of years), since everyone who made them is quite dead, but the Vatican has mostly erred on the side of releasing documents EARLIER -- such as WWII-related POW documents -- rather than holding them back out of fear of scandal.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:56 PM on March 23, 2014 [9 favorites]


I regularly do research in the Vatican Library (Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, or BAV), and while I'm excited about this, what I really hope for is for the BAV to start digitizing its printed books collection too. The manuscript room is a joy to do work in, in part because the staff, who are consummate professionals, are patient and gentle with those of us who struggle with Italian. The staff in the stampati room are professionals too, I guess, but man, are they grumpy. Oh, and let's all of us say a brief thank you to the much maligned Father Leonard Boyle, O.P., who spearheaded the BAV's intital entry into the modern world. Without him, there would be no online catalog for the BAV at all!
posted by pleasant_confusion at 2:58 PM on March 23, 2014 [3 favorites]


There's a persistent rumor in Jewish circles that the Vatican holds the treasures of the Temple in Jerusalem, looted by the Emperor Titus in 70 CE. Every couple of decades this happens:

VATICAN OFFICIAL: Welcome Rabbi Soandsofsky, what a pleasure it is to welcome you to the Vatican's libraries in the name of interfaith cooperation and reconciliation.

RABBI: It's a very great pleasure to be here, I hope that we can work together to erase the divisions between our two great communities &c &c. [PAUSE] You know, you probably get asked this a lot, but there's this story that the Menorah from the Temple is held somewhere within the Vatican.

VATICAN OFFICIAL: Aha, yes, an urban legend, we don't know how it started, but I assure you that it's not true, would that it were.

RABBI [DISAPPOINTED]: Of course. Of course. Still. [PAUSE] Would it be OK if I saw it anyway?
posted by Joe in Australia at 3:00 PM on March 23, 2014 [9 favorites]


Just to clear up any confusion: this project is being run by the Vatican Library (the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana), not the Vatican Archives (the Archivum Secretum Vaticanum). So you can expect some glorious medieval and Renaissance manuscripts of Virgil, Cicero and St Augustine (see here for some examples), including the contents of the Bibliotheca Palatina (looted from Germany during the Thirty Years War) but not, as yet, the papacy's own archival records.

As for the openness of the Vatican Archives, well, as a cynical Jesuit scholar said to me a few years ago: 'it's a golden age for research in the Vatican Archives .. they're so busy shredding the papers of Pius XII that they haven't got time to hide anything else'.
posted by verstegan at 3:18 PM on March 23, 2014 [4 favorites]


verstegan: "Just to clear up any confusion: this project is being run by the Vatican Library (the Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana), not the Vatican Archives (the Archivum Secretum Vaticanum)."

But -- to slightly reconfuse it -- the Library and Archives fall under the authority of the same cardinal archbishop, who has a great deal of power to set policy, so while they're obviously managed differently as they're different sorts of things, policy tends to move in the same direction for both in tandem.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:33 PM on March 23, 2014


I just started clicking around and found something interesting: what's the diagonal line at the bottom of this page? I thought it might have been a trial left by some kind of insect eating the page, but I doubt it since the scribe appears to have written around it.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 10:34 PM on March 23, 2014


It looks like a tear in the parchment that's been sewn together, or perhaps a cut in the leather used to make the parchment. You can see the diagonal stitching.
posted by Joe in Australia at 11:04 PM on March 23, 2014


It's a stitch in the vellum, probably from a cut made during production. Flaws and thin spots aren't that uncommon in manuscripts, particularly if they're not super fancy. Since vellum is made from animal skin, if there was a flaw, scar or other imperfection in that part of the beast, your options were to repair it or throw it away. You can see some examples of vellum flaws here.
posted by zamboni at 1:17 PM on March 24, 2014


Looking at the page preview, they cheaped on the vellum on this one. See if you can spot all the holes and flaws!
posted by zamboni at 1:35 PM on March 24, 2014


Mary Beard on the peculiarities of Google Translate and Latin

I'd dig out my Latin texts from grad school if I were going to actually work out what's in the documents. The web site appears to be in Italian, though, which is where Google is going to help me out.
posted by immlass at 2:09 PM on March 24, 2014


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