The Vatican Library, a symbol of the Catholic Church’s intellectual and cultural wealth – as well as the Pope’s own personal library – is something of a modern-day treasure trove. From ancient manuscripts to rare books, old coins and works of art, the library has a rich history and offers a glimpse into the vast knowledge accumulated over centuries in the historic city of Rome. In this article, we’re going to take a look at the history of the Vatican Library, what you can find inside, and why it’s so hard to visit this secretive spot within the Vatican’s walls. Let’s take a look!
History of the Vatican Library
The Vatican Library traces its origins back to the early days of the Catholic Church, but it wasn’t until the 15th century that it became a distinct institution. Founded by Pope Nicholas V in 1451, the library’s initial collection comprised manuscripts and books from the pope’s personal library, as well as those acquired during the Council of Florence.
Throughout the centuries, the library’s collection has grown through acquisitions, donations, and papal patronage. In 1475, Pope Sixtus IV officially established the Vatican Library as a public institution, allowing scholars to access its vast resources. With the invention of the printing press, the library’s collection expanded rapidly, as it began to acquire printed books alongside manuscripts – some of which are over 2,000 years old.
Like other areas in Rome, The Vatican Library has had its fair share of challenges and crises, such as the Sack of Rome in 1527 and the Napoleonic Wars, which led to the confiscation of many manuscripts and books. Nevertheless, the library has always managed to recover and expand its collection, and it remains a go-to resource for many renowned scholars and academics.
What’s in the Vatican Library?
The Vatican Library’s collection is both vast and diverse, housing over 1.6 million books, 75,000 manuscripts, and 8,600 incunabula (aka books printed before 1501). This includes significant works of theology, history, science, literature, and art from different cultures and time periods.
Some of the library’s most notable manuscripts include the Codex Vaticanus, one of the oldest and most important copies of the Bible; the Vatican Virgil, a richly illustrated manuscript of Virgil’s works dating back to the 5th century; and the Urb.lat.277, a beautifully illustrated copy of Dante’s Divine Comedy. The library also boasts an extensive collection of ancient maps and globes, such as the Gallery of Maps, which features 16th-century frescoes depicting maps of Italy and its regions. Additionally, the library holds a large collection of coins and medals, as well as numerous works of art, including frescoes, sculptures, and paintings. You can even find ancient coins that were said to be paid to Judas in exchange for killing Jesus.
Who can visit the Vatican library?
Unfortunately, tourists and visitors are not permitted to access or visit the Vatican library. In some cases, permission to visit the library can be extended to known scholars, historians, and academics, who are able to use the library’s resources in their professional work. Outside this framework, it’s almost impossible to pay the library a visit, with some undergraduate students even being denied access for academic reasons.
Why aren’t tourists allowed to visit the Vatican library?
The reason tourists are prohibited from visiting the Vatican library is simple: preservation. Many of the items within the Vatican Library are extremely rare, valuable, and delicate, and allowing unrestricted access to the general public could potentially result in damage to these precious manuscripts, books, and works of art.
There’s also a security aspect to take into consideration: the Vatican Library holds an extensive collection of invaluable artifacts, making security a top priority. Restricting visitor access helps maintain a secure environment and minimizes the risk of theft or vandalism.
Where to go instead
While visiting the Vatican Library may be a difficult feat, there are several other unique and fascinating tours available within the Vatican City that showcase its rich history, art, and architecture. At What a Life Tours, we offer a range of unique guided tours, including a skip the line Vatican tour, a Colosseum under the stars tour, and even a tour of the Vatican’s Mosaic Studio. While we would love to be able to show visitors around the historic library, you can still get the best out of your trip with one of our fun-packed guided tours.