Whispers Of History: Behind The Walls Of The Secret Vatican Archives

Half a millennium ago, the Holy See established secret archives that today house millions of documents, including private papal records, meant to be protected both from the elements, and prying eyes. It is also a great resource for historians.

The Papal Swiss Guard, protecting the Vatican and its secrets since the 16th century (Bertrand Hauger)
The Papal Swiss Guard, protecting the Vatican and its secrets since the 16th century (Bertrand Hauger)

VATICAN CITY - Once I realized that I was not in the labyrinth of "The Name of the Rose," but in a place much like the library of the Physics department of the university where I'd spent many a frustrating afternoon, my excitement was downgraded to simple curiosity. The very polite and expert archivist added to that feeling when he told me precisely where we were.

The Vatican Secret Archives were founded exactly 500 years ago, in 1612 -- with Baldassarre Ansidei as its first archivist -- to guard documents which had been worn away by microorganisms and mold in the previous archives in Castel Sant'Angelo. But given that names are important, let's start with the word "secret." It comes from the Latin "secretum": that is secluded, and private. The archivist explained that the translation "secret" was not totally accurate.

In fact, the archives are dedicated to the Pope's private business. Mainly, it consists of correspondence containing pleas and petitions for benefices and prebends. There are also administrative documents, such as the verdicts of the Catholic appellate tribunal, the Sacred Roman Rota, and many others.

The archives' bookshelves take up over 85 kilometers in the Vatican undergrounds, and we can roughly estimate that there are several dozen million documents, of varying importance. The archives have to keep everything, and so here you can find just about anything. I've only been able to capture a few details of this huge collection, some of which were curious, some mysterious, some useless. There are receipts of payments from Cardinal Borghese to the artists under his wing; incomes from papal assets; the Liber Diurnus (a ninth century set of rules on how to write official letters to the Pope or the emperor); special petitions addressed to the Pope by various powerful people of the world.

From Rome to Paris and back

The history of the archives is often connected to the history of attempted French power grabs. For example, the documents of the older archives (Archivium Archis), were moved from Castel Sant'Angelo to the Vatican museums overnight, to avoid ending up in French hands. In the end however, the French took over the archives and Napoleon ordered the documents to be transferred to Paris. It was just a brief sojourn, though. In 1814, after the first defeat and exile of the Emperor, the volumes went back home.

Some documents were lost (approximately one fourth, according to some estimates) and others were kept by the French, because of their historical importance. Among these, were the documents of the Galileo Galilei trial, which they agreed to return 30 years later.

At first glance, the word "secret" seems like an overstatement. But if a very curious person was to ask which documents they were allowed access to, there would be some surprises. Indeed, not everything can be consulted. Every Pope sets the date after which the archive can be seen. Currently, for example, Benedict XVI has forbidden the access to documents dating before 1939. It is a step up from John Paul II's 1922 threshold.

John Paul II also established the "Cura Vigilantissima," a series of rules forbidding the consultation or disclosure of documents concerning a Pope's private life, or documents about canon trials. The archivist was vague on the subject, though.

Still, even without these particular documents, the archives offer some gems. The last document that the archivist showed me was a letter addressed by famed Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi to the papal nuncio on October 12, 1847. At the time, Pope Pius IX was seen as a hope for the future unification of Italy, and Garibaldi wrote to him offering his and his comrades' arms to defend the country and Rome from foreign invaders. Later, Pius IX revised his liberal positions, which caused Garibaldi to call him "a cubic meter of muck on the other side of the Tiber River." This happened 22 years after the first letter, a lifetime in politics, but only a droplet in Vatican history.

Read more from La Stampa in Italian

Photo - Bertrand Hauger

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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