Who's Who

Vatican Secrets Revealed

Ann Natanson visits an exhibition in Rome that highlights the papacy’s interaction with major figures of European history.

Lux in Arcana in the Capitoline Museums in RomeA rare display of documents from the Vatican’s secret archives is currently on show in the Capitoline Museums in Rome. The documents span 12 centuries and four continents. This is the first and probably the last time that they will leave the Vatican.

The exhibition’s title, Lux in Arcana: The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself, explains its purpose. In this case the word ‘secret’, in Latin, means private and describes the personal correspondence of popes, covering a range of subjects: pleas for help, bulls of condemnation, theological and terrestrial laws, correspondence with saints, sinners and world powers of the past. These documents were first kept in Castel Sant’Angelo. Since 1612 they have been held in the Vatican itself, where they now occupy 50 miles of temperature-controlled shelf space.

Some of the objects are simple letters written on birch bark, silk and parchment; others are dignified by seals and signatures. In 1530 Henry VIII persuaded 83 nobles and clergy to send an appeal to Pope Clement VII, granting him a divorce from Katherine of Aragon. Their wax seals dangle on red ribbons but the document failed to convince the pope. In a hurry to have a son, Henry turned his back on the papacy and founded the Church of England. Henry VIII called the appeal his ‘secret matter’ and the document has been described as ‘the most impressive ever circulated by the Tudors’.

Another monarch, Christina of Sweden, born a Lutheran, caused a stir when she abdicated in 1654 and converted to Catholicism. In December 1655 she arrived in Rome with an entourage of 255 courtiers and 247 horses, her library and paintings. Vatican circles found Christina’s manner and lifestyle disturbing. She sat sideways in her chair at the theatre, with her legs dangling over the arm and applauded loudly. There was talk of her love affairs both with priests and lady courtiers; even her sex was disputed by some to the extent that her body was exhumed in 1989 for a full examination, though the result proved inconclusive.

She lies in a marble tomb in the crypt of St Peter’s, one of the few women buried in the Vatican grottoes. The most notable Catholic convert of her age, her abdication document, acquired by the Vatican, is decorated with the Swedish colours, blue and yellow, and 307 wooden skippets for the seals of witnesses.

One of the longest documents on display is the 60-metre parchment scroll sent to Pope Clement V in 1311 by French members of the order of Knights Templar. It is displayed falling in a cascade inside a tall showcase. It was an account of a previous trial of Templars and a plea from 231of their fellow knights for help. Philip IV of France had burned 54 of them at the stake and the same fate awaited the signers of this document if they revoked their previous confessions. Ultimately the money-hungry king proved the strongest in the struggle between pope and king: a bull issued in 1312 by Pope Clement V decreed the complete suppression of the order.

The choice of the Capitoline Museums is apt. Decorated with 16th- and 17th-century frescoes and ancient sculptures, it is said to be the world’s oldest public museum. On the piano nobile, under the gaze of a huge statue of Pope Urban VIII, the story begins with Galileo Galilei’s renunciation. After four long sessions of painful questioning by the Inquisition he denied Copernican theories of a heliocentric universe. With a firm hand he signed his statement: ‘I Galileo Galilei have abjured as written above’.

Galileo made his disclaimer in 1633. He was 70 by this time, half blind and in ill health. The Inquisition found him guilty of heresy and sentenced him to penance and house arrest in his villa at Arcetri, to the south of Florence.

Throughout the exhibition one sees the signatures and names of people who punctuate the history books, while commentaries explain their links with the documents. They include Lucrezia Borgia, Michelangelo, Mary Queen of Scots, Napoleon, Mussolini, Voltaire, Bernini and Emperor Hirohito.

The original intention of the exhibition’s curators to celebrate 400 years of the Vatican archives was to display 300 documents. Though just a hundred made the final selection, they provide a rich historical banquet.

Lux in Arcana is at the Capitolini Museums, Rome until September 9th 2012

Ann Natanson is a journalist based in Rome.

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