A 3-Year Goodbye
The extended closing is due to the pressing need for restoration and consolidation of the library structure and collection. By the time the works are complete, the Vatican library will be more modern and user-friendly for the hundreds of researchers from all over the world who consult the treasure trove of manuscripts and documents.
The idea of the Vatican Library was formed by Pope Nicholas V in 1450 when the Pope started collecting and organizing manuscripts. But the actual foundation took place under Pope Sixtus IV della Rovere who appointed the first “gubernator et custos,” Bartolomeo Platina, in 1475. This visionary Pope, who also built the Sistine Chapel, swelled the collection to 3,500 volumes, the largest library in Italy at the time.
The immense collection was given its home by Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) who built the present library palace in the Belvedere courtyard and decorated the stunning reading room still visible in the Vatican Museums today.
The library was raided by Napoleon in 1797 and one can still discern the faint stamp of the Bibliotèque Nationale Française under the Vatican Library mark in several of the more precious volumes.
Today the collection numbers 1.6 million texts and 75,000 manuscripts. While laughable compared to the Library of Congress in the United States, it is the quality, not the quantity that counts here.
The Vatican Library contains some of the rarest manuscripts in the world, including Cicero and Virgil as well as Gospel fragments dating as far back as the second century. It also boasts exquisitely illuminated works and a tiny papyrus note book, the oldest book in existence. The Codex Vaticanus, the fourth-century Greek translation of the Bible, is one of the oldest Bibles in the world.
The library also has an immense numismatic collection, featuring 300,000 coins and medals.
The three-year restoration project aims to create more space for the ever-growing number of scholars that need its resources as well as restoring and rendering more modern its 16th-century home. A climate-control system will be installed, the restoration labs renewed and the manuscript depository has to be brought up to standards of the European Union.
It is a difficult sacrifice for researchers, especially those who are in the middle of working on doctoral theses or books. During this period, however, Father Raffaele Farina, the prefect of the Vatican Library, has promised that personnel will be available through e-mail correspondence for photographic or digital reproductions, and that they will continue to put manuscripts online. More information can be found on the library Web site.
Many disappointed tourists, teachers and students who gazed up at scaffolding during the Sistine Chapel’s 10-year restoration discovered that the long sacrifice was well worth the wait. Hopefully, the restoration of the Vatican Library will be as fortunate.