Exhibition sheds light on secret Vatican Archives | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 09.03.2012
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Exhibition sheds light on secret Vatican Archives

The Vatican has revealed some of its oldest documents, but only for a short while, as they will go back behind closed doors in a matter of months. DW went to Rome to get a glimpse of these historic relics.

Storehouse of the Vatican Secret Archives

The Vatican Archives contain million of documents

Some of Europe's best kept secret archives have been revealed for the first time publicly in an historic exhibition in Rome. While they might not provide the path to illumination, these documents from the secret archives of the Vatican are no doubt a history buff's dream.

A rare opportunity

One hundred precious books, parchment scrolls, letters and edicts have been laid out in the "Lux in Arcana" exhibition at Rome's Capitoline Museums.

Proceedings of the trial of Galileo Galilei

Proceedings of the trial of Galileo Galilei

The historic documents include a despairing letter from an imprisoned Marie Antoinette, records on the excommunication of Martin Luther and proceedings of the trial of Galileo.

Marco Maiolini, one of the curators of the exhibit, said the archives were more private than secret, as scholars have been able to access the collection since 1881.

It is, however, the first time the public has had access to these documents, the exhibition marking the fourth centenary of the opening of the Archives.

The Archives were founded in 1612 to protect the documents from microorganisms, insects and mold which started to erode the items at the original storage space inside Rome's Castel Sant'Angelo.

In total, the secret archives hold tens of millions of documents that range from the eighth century to the present day. While the documents are stored on shelves, if placed in a line, they would span some 85 kilometers.

Historical reminders

Other ancient relics include a scroll with the 231 depositions from the 14th century inquest into the Order of the Knights Templar in Paris - comprising 60 meters of parchment.

Trial of the Templars of France - 231 depositions on 60 meters of parchment

Trial of the Templars of France - 231 depositions on 60 meters of parchment

"We can use that to examine the allegations of idolatry, heresy and sodomy on the part of the accused," Maiolino explained.

In another exhibit room entitled "Saints, Queens and Courtiers," a small letter in flowery brown handwriting that had been folded in two is the last letter on record written by Marie Antoinette.

Barely more than 10 lines, she wrote from prison to her brother-in-law, explaining how the sentiments of those who shared her pain were her only consolation in these sad circumstances.

She wrote the letter just days before her husband Louis XVI was beheaded and months before she was put to her own death.

Not all the documents on display, however, chronicle imprisonment and condemnation.

A parchment on which Pope Clement XIV confers the prestigious Gold Spur Award to then teenage composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is also on show, as is a letter from Voltaire complimenting Pope Benedict XIV on his good Latin.

Author: Megan Williams / cl
Editor: Louisa Schaefer

The exhibition runs until September, 2012.

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