The Vatican Library reopens on 20 September

It hardly seems credible that they’ve managed it on time, exactly three years and two months later.  The Vatican Library closed its doors to researchers on 14 July 2007 in order to embark on a vast programme of refurbishment, reorganisation and technological improvements.  The fact that it has been completed on time is entirely due to the dedication and efficiency of the Vatican Library staff, headed by Library Prefect, Monsignor Cesare Pasini (whose newsletters have the occasional charming aside – viz the seagulls here) .

I was a regular visitor to the Vatican Library between 1980 and 1987 and the leisure of those days now seems almost inconceivable: living in Rome and having access to one of the world’s greatest libraries was such a privilege, and in many ways I wish I’d made better use of it.   Walking in through the Porta Sant’Anna and past the Swiss guards was a great experience – I used to post my letters from the Vatican Post Office just inside the gates as in those days they would certainly arrive quicker!

Apart from the new micro-chipped cards and added security, the real novelty in the refurbished library will be the reading room.  From what I’ve read, I think the move to the larger Salone Sistino, above the existing reading room, may still take a few months to accomplish as works are still required to shorten the access route for readers.  However, next Monday’s press conference will be held there, so keep an eye out for pictures of the new layout.

The whole library wing was added by Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590), dividing the Cortile del Belvedere from the courtyard which is now known as the Cortile della Biblioteca.  The architect was Domenico Fontana.  The Salone Sistino is on the top floor and  was  decorated by Giovanni Guerra and Cesare Nebbia, among others.

For years the Salone Sistino could be visited as part of the tour of the Vatican Museums, but two years ago the Salone came back under the aegis of the library.  It will certainly now contain tables – although without the books chained to the benches, as shown in a famous fresco along the side wall of this very hall.  On the opposite side, another fresco highlights the power of the post-Tridentine church to identify and burn heretical works, and the Council of Trent (which only ended in December 1563) is shown as the culmination in a series of the major ecclesiastical councils. Above all, the Salone Sistino is perhaps most famous for its portrayal of the history of writing.  The figures on the central pillars include the inventors of the alphabet, notably the protodivine figure of  Hermes Trismegistus, the inventor of hieroglyphics.  The overall message of Sixtus V is clear: learning, doctrine and language are all inextricably linked through the Church and in Christ, whose image is shown as alpha and omega.

The reopening of the library will be marked, among other events, by the publication of a major new History of the Vatican Library.  We will have to wait fourteen years or so for all seven volumes to appear, but the first one is due out very soon, edited by Antonio Manfredi under the title The Origins of the Vatican Library: from Humanism to the Renaissance (1447-1534).

With its new Wi-Fi facilities, the library is finally moving into the 21st century, but I hope it will not have lost that extraordinary, unique atmosphere, and also I hope that the cafe in the small courtyard will still be there to offer coffee and tempting croissants and cakes.   Basically, I can’t wait to get a chance to visit again.

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