Using the Vatican Secret Archives and Other Roman Collections

The Archivio Segreto Vaticano (ASV), the Vatican Secret Archives!  Even the term sounds ominous, as John Cornwell so solemnly stated in a supposed response to a question from Ed Bradley in an interview with CBS “60 Minutes,” as though his access to them was a privilege rarely given.  Much of this image stems from the name of this collection of documents—“Secret” here does not mean what English speakers mean; rather it  pertains to the secretariat, to what has been set aside or preserved for the use of the pope and his advisers.  In fact, we derive the English word “secretary” from this usage.  In 1881, Leo XIII opened these archives to all legitimate scholars.  How restricted is access?  By illustration, I was present on the day in September, 2006, when the pontificate of Pius XI (Feb., 1922-Feb., 1939) was open to scholars.  Roughly eighty-one people received their passes for admission for I did, so admission is not the privilege of an exclusive club.  Use of the archives is restricted to those who have finished the American equivalent of a four-year college.  First-time users usually must have some university affiliation, i.e., professors or graduate students, and should have a letter of introduction from their home institution or someone who already has access.  These rules are spelled out on the home page of ASV.  Access once given is for life, although researchers have to renew their “tessera” or pass at the beginning of each period of research.  The “Rules for Scholars” state that two copies of a photograph should accompany the application, but the secretariat at the archives now has its own digital camera for that purpose.

One final observation about the initial use of ASV that is not clear on the home page.  Users enter the Vatican through the Porta Sant’Anna outside of and to the right of St. Peter’s Square.  It is the principal automobile entrance to Vatican City.  One cannot enter without a tessera, but one needs to enter in order to obtain a tessera.  Hence, when the Swiss Guard stops you and asks for your tessera, simply say “archivio.”  Say the same thing to the policeman who is on duty just beyond the Swiss Guard.  Once you have the precious document, you merely have to flash it to get in.  It is therefore good practice to retain it even when it has expired, since it will allow you past the gate in future years.

The archive home page has the list of some of the indices for the various “fondi,” but these are not detailed.  The main room for indices has recently been relocated outside the main “study room” where documents are consulted.  Unfortunately, no one in the study room, where one has to order documents, currently speaks English, which places non-Italian speakers at a disadvantage.  But perseverance and patience usually produce results.  The rules for dress are now simplified to urge that attire be appropriate for the purpose of the archives—until very recently, a man was required to wear a jacket even when the temperature was in the 90s in an un-air-conditioned building.  Other restrictions, however, still remain in force, such as the limitation of three fascicles or file folders per day and a charge for photocopying of 8 euros for each fascicle in addition to 50 euro cents for each copy made.  No digital cameras are allowed.

It should be noted that there are other ecclesiastical archives Rome in addition to the secret archives.  For missionary countries, including the United States up to 1908, the Archives of the Congregation for the Evangelization of People or Propaganda Fide, located in the library of the Urban University on the Janiculum, are invaluable.  The documents pertaining to the United States have been carefully calendared.  In 1998, the archives for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, previously known as the Holy Office, were for the first time open to scholars.  The Propaganda and the ACDF follow the same rules as the ASV  in regard to the periods for which documents may be consulted—at present up to the death of Pius XI in February, 1939.  Other archives, such as those of the Congregation of Bishops, are not available, since the nomination of bishops is considered to be confidential, but, for the United States, such information is readily available in the Propaganda archives up to 1908.  In the lengthy find guide or index for the American material in ASV up to 1939, many items are designated as not to be consulted since they pertain to the appointment of bishops.

Most religious orders of men and women with headquarters in Rome also maintain their own archives and follow the same norms for the open periods for consultation of documents as ASV.   One further note about European archives in general.  Most government archives require a “letter of presentation” from the embassy of the person applying to use the archives.  Research universities are used to handling such things and can assist graduate students or other first-time users.

G. P. Fogarty, S.J.