The (not so) Secret Vatican Archives: A Practical Guide for Researchers

In the first of our posts on doing research abroad, Fred Smith  (@Fred_E_Smith) explores the Secret Vatican Archives.

Aliens? Illuminati secrets? Devices that can see into the future? It seems that no conspiracy theory is too far-fetched for those who speculate what may be hidden within the vaults of the Archivum Segretum Vaticanum. [1] Indeed, the Vatican’s ‘secret’ archives are perhaps unique in their ability to fire the popular thirst for tales of mystery and machination – think, for instance, of their recent appearance in the 2009 film-adaptation of Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons, which saw an ill-fated Tom Hanks trapped in a bullet-proof reading room, slowly being deprived of oxygen.

As is so often the case, the truth is far less exciting. Whilst the Archive does undeniably contain some of the world’s most precious documents, including Henry VIII’s 1530 petition to Clement VIII for a divorce from Katherine of Aragon, it is far from the enigmatic and secretive institution it is often purported to be. [2] Ever since 1881 the archives have been open to scholars of all nationalities and faiths. Furthermore, although certain documents postdating the end of Pope Pius XI’s papacy remain classified, the vast majority of material contained in the vaults is available for consultation. [3]

Partly to blame for its enduring air of mystery is the English mistranslation of the archive’s official name – the Archivum Secretum Vaticanum. The Latin adjective, ‘Secretum’, is more accurately rendered here as ‘private’, the archives in effect representing a collection of the Papacy’s private and personal documents from the past 1,000 years. However, whilst the ASV’s clandestine nature is therefore something of a popular misconception, it is certainly not the easiest of archives for scholars to access and use. Having spent the last week working in the Vatican, I hope the following practical pointers may prove useful for historians hoping to search amongst its many treasures.

1 – Bring a map

I spent the best part of an hour scouring the outskirts of the Vatican searching for a sign to the archives. A friendly member of the Swiss Guard eventually informed me that the entrance was through the Porta Sant’Anna, just north of Piazza San Pietro. Make sure you bring your passport on your visit as you will be faced by a series of police checkpoints. Once you make it through these, the archives themselves are in the North-West corner of the Cortile del Belvedere.

2 – Research the old-fashioned way

Anyone expecting a Dan Brown-style, ultra-modern workspace, complete with hermetically sealed reading rooms, brushed steel and glass walls will be rather disappointed. Entering into a reception room reminiscent of a classic Italian locanda, a 1950s-style lift takes you up to small Index room lined with hundreds of volumes cataloguing the manuscripts housed within. There is no computerised search function which may come as a surprise to historians accustomed to the English National Archives ‘Discovery’ system. Instead, expect to spend a couple of hours getting to grips with the rather unintuitive indexing system. To add to the experience, there is no Wifi access, and the use of phones is strictly prohibited; at least you don’t have to worry about procrastinating.

3 – Brush up on your Italian

This might seem rather obvious, however there are many reasons why non-Italian speakers might want to research in the Vatican. A significant number, if not most, of the manuscripts are written in Latin, which remains the official language of the Holy See. There are also a number of collections in English, Spanish and a variety of other modern European Languages. However, a working knowledge of practical Italian is essential for navigating the archives efficiently. Virtually all the written instructions dotted around the walls are provided in Italian alone, whilst many of the archivists, although extremely friendly and helpful, speak only a little English. A basic familiarity with some of the vocabulary you are likely to need and encounter – words such as ‘La tessera’ (entry card) or ‘I fondi’ (collections/fonds) – will go a long way.

4 – Check the opening times

Italian opening times in general can seem rather baffling to the uninitiated. The widespread observance of the traditional midday risposo (the Italian equivalent to the Spanish Siesta) sees many shops and museums close for an hour or two anytime between 13:00 and 16:00. Until January of this year, the same was true of the Vatican Archives, however a new timetable has been introduced for 2017 which sees the doors open from 8:45 to 16:45, Monday to Friday, and 8:45 to 14:00 on Friday. However, make sure you time your visit carefully – the archives are closed for large portions of the year, including all of July, August and September, whilst there are a number of special closure dates dispersed throughout the year. [4]

5 – Don’t go hungry

Last but not least, the Vatican Archives have their own cafe, shared with the adjoining Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana. However, the entrance is, once again, not immediately obvious. An inconspicuous passageway bored into one of the walls of the Cortile della Biblioteca opens up onto what seems to be a converted crypt. There is no menu, but the staff seem to be more than happy to make a salad or sandwich to order, especially if you book one earlier in the morning. At a price of around 3 euros for a cappuccino and a panini, it’s perhaps the cheapest bar in all of Rome – a secret worthy of the archive’s name!


[1] A simple search in Google provides thousands of (often rather colourful) examples.
[2] ‘Henry VIII letter to pope pleading for divorce reproduced’, The Guardian (23 June, 2009) <;.
[3] For more information on the history of the archives, visit the official website <;.
[4] A full timetable can be downloaded at <;.

Image: Bernini Colonnade at St Peter’s Square, © Jorge Royan /, via Wikimedia Commons,

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