Skip to content

BAV – Vatican Library

7 years ago

3447 words

Important Building Restoration Works at the Vatican Library
The announcement of the closure of the prestigious Institution for three years beginning July 16, 2007

The normal life of a Library, even if visited every day by more than 150 scholars and managed by a staff of about a hundred librarians and technicians, functions in an atmosphere of serenity and calm, with a rhythm of work that is conditioned more by objectives that must be met than by deadlines. If one adds to this the solemnity of the environment of an age-old tradition, in visiting it, one can rightly have the feeling of finding oneself in a church rather than a highly-specialized workplace, where one breathes in with the fragrance of books and bindings a silence like a beehive.
Nevertheless the atmosphere of the Vatican Library isn’t that way these days that immediately precede the announced three year closing. The crowding, the lines at the counter and recently at the entrance to the Library itself, the space made tighter by the addition of more desks for scholars, give the obvious feeling of urgency, and from the silence, that miraculously is always observed, the nervousness of the scholars and the stress of the reading room staff is felt.
In this situation, confirming their trust in the direction of the Library, many ask questions about the nature of the works that must be done and on their urgency, in the hope that they can find some solution that nevertheless allows a “little opening”, an exception to the severity of the decision made to close the Vatican Library for such a long time. Naturally, all know, just to limit ourselves to Italy and Rome, of the closure of the Ambrosianum Library in Milan for 7 years (1990-1997); of the Library of Archeology and Art History (closed for restructuring from 1990-1993); of the Central National Library of Rome (closed from 1998 to 2001);
and more recently of the Herzianum (closed from December 21, 2001 until the present time). And besides that: the Library of the American Academy (closed from July 29, 2006 up until September 10, 2007), the Library of the Germanic Institute (closed from September 11, 2006 to the Spring of 2008), and of other prestigious libraries, that had a longer or shorter period of closure for construction. Obviously, the closing of the Vatican Library is considered an event totally outside of the ordinary and is presented as such by the press and media.

Problems of space in the history of the Vatican Library

Three locations are listed in the history of the Vatican Library: the Library of Niccolò V and Sixtus IV, the “Sistene Library” of Sixtus V and the “Leonine Library” of Leo XIII. The three Libraries can be pinpointed in very specific spaces that survived the test of time and that have been preserved up until now as works of engineering and art. Important structures were created next to and inside of these, tied to names of great pontifical friends and patrons of the Library such as Pius XI, Paolo VI and John Paul II. Without going into details, I would like to remember the works promoted by Cardinal Alfons Stickler and inaugurated in 1983 by John Paul II: 1) the cataloguing building, built behind the so-called Wall of Michelangelo, that, respecting the environment, sits atop the embankment and access tunnel to the fountain of Galeone, composed of 20 rooms, with ample windows and the comfort of air-conditioning; 2) The manuscripts vault, housed underneath the courtyard of the Library, designed to house over 72,000 manuscripts.The shelving (6,500 linear meters) and ventilation, lighting, and security systems were the most advanced in the techniques of conservation of that time.

The Accomplishments of the Last Ten Years

Over the last ten years, from 1997 onwards, there were major projects that form a prelude to those present and are part of a more general project of re-organization of space, with the goal of accomplishing a model of an Historical-Humanistic Library that aims to conserve and hand down the model of the Founders of the Vatican Library, selecting and refining compatible modern techniques and accepting the best of integrations that happened in five or more centuries of history.
In 1999, the Protocol Office and the Archives of the Prefecture were established in an appropriately renovated area beneath the Offices of the Prefecture. These areas contain the documents of the Library’s history, the collections it acquired through the centuries, and the documentation concerning the administration and staff from 1451 to the present.
In 2001 works that took about two years were concluded in order to bring the electrical system of the New Catalogue and in the Printed Books Stacks up to code (in the Eastern wing of the Cortile del Belvedere). The latter was demanding even from an economic point of view. In the same year the Vatican Administration prepared for a book storage area, on via della Conciliazione n. 34 (Palazzo Bramante), where the stacks of the collection “Studi e Testi” of our publishing house was transferred, in this way freeing up precious space for the placement of our business office and for the Information Technology (I.T.) department.
Next to the Periodicals Reading Room, the Barberini Room has been inaugurated with reconstruction as faithful as possible to the “Libraria grande” of Cardinal Francesco Barberini, the wooden shelving of which was the work of carpenter-architect Giovanni Battista Soria. This shelving reached the Vatican Library in 1902 through the work of Father Franz Ehrle. It was used to hold the books in what is now the second Manuscript consultation room and remained there until it was replaced in the 80’s with metal shelves and then placed in storage. Now recovered and restored, it has been remounted exactly as it was found in the Palazzo Barberini on via delle Quattro Fontane and constitutes a jewel alongside our new Periodicals Reading Room.
The digital laboratory and the laboratory for multi-spectral reading of palimpsests was also built in 2002.
In 2003 the new headquarters for the Vatican School of Library Science was inaugurated in the San Paolo building, on via della Conciliazione 1, with more convenient offices, two seminar rooms and a small library with a computer room equipped with 49 computer stations: a real technological gem that allows lessons to be conducted with ease and efficiency, with the availability of on-line services, access to sources of on-line data and interactivity between instructors and students.
In 2004, the remodeling of the Cardinal Librarian’s office was finished. It is now accessible through the elevator from the Printed Books Consultation Room.
In 2005, after completion of the three-year-work of restoring the frescoes on the vault of the “Scriptors’ Room” (vestibule of the Sistine Hall) and some of the carved benches from the first library of Niccolò V and Sixtus IV was finished, the hall was equipped with adequate lighting and air conditioning.
In the same year, the new locations of the business office and Information Technology Department were inaugurated, with the entrance onto Cortile del Belvedere, alongside the main entrance. The rooms previously occupied by the business office were remodeled and became the headquarters of the Exhibitions Office, which was transferred from one of the two small rooms that were found on the same floor. Those rooms will be used as meeting rooms for by the Library staff.
From 2006 to 2007 the space in the New Cataloguing building was expanded, so that by reclaiming the rooms freed up by the Information Technology staff and adding some new ones to them, it was possible to assign eight new offices to Scriptors and Assistants of the Manuscript Department who didn’t have them.

Work Planned for the Three Years of Closure

The current problems of the Library stem from the antiquity of the building that houses it, the lack of space that is indispensable for book materials and staff, the sharing of living space with neighboring institutions, the configuration of the spaces and the unusual superstructure, not in conformity with the traditional and normal one for libraries. Most of the staff could not reach their own work place without passing through the consultation rooms. The biggest disadvantage comes from the continual passing through these rooms, for maintenance and various types of necessities, external staff, workers, merchandise of various dimensions, causing obvious disturbance to the scholars and posing risks for the manuscripts, books, and art objects.
The planned work that would be needed to at least partly resolve this problem would include the following:

1. Consolidation, restructuring and air conditioning of the rooms used for the Restoration, Photographic and Digital Laboratories and the Photographic and Digital Archives.
The building that houses the Photographic Laboratories and Archives (a very important part of the activity of the Library) was restructured in the years of the Pontificate of Pius X. With subsequent modifications, including the insertion of sheet-metal partitions supported by metal shelving, it was useed first as manuscript stacks, then for Laboratories and storage. For ten years, this part has been subject to periodic checks by the technical services of the Health Office of the Governatorato which has made clear the need to eliminate the false superstructures that had become dangerous, totally renovate the building, and bring the Laboratories up to European standards. In the last two years we freed up the major part of the book deposits, that starting within a few months will be located in via della Conciliazione, 5.
The building itself will no longer include any book deposits, but will be exclusively dedicated to the two Laboratories and the Photographic Archives. The spaces will be streamlined for different uses and will be air conditioned.
There will be three significant innovations. On the side of the building that faces the parking lot and the Post Office building, a large entrance will be open at the level of the street that leads to Galea that will allow the passage of goods, and there will be a very secure space for the packing, unpacking and interim storage of manuscripts intended for exhibitions or otherwise leaving the Library. A second innovation will be a big glass elevator, outside the building, facing the Courtyard of the Library, which will connect the Manuscript vault, the Manuscript Reading Room, the two Laboratories, the Photographic Archives and the terrace where there is a large warehouse of furniture and equipment, air conditioning machinery, and the entrance to the apartment of the Prefect. The latest innovation concerns the Photographic Archives, which will be divided between historical archives or preservation archives and archives to be used in view of numerous requests from all over the world. Within the storage archives there will be more distinctions that allow different types of air conditioning depending on the media and the type of reproduction preserved.

2. The Complete Restucturing of the Periodical Storage Area (the former storage area of the papal carriages), located in the right wing of the Cortile del Belvedere
The current structure, built in the years 1963-1978, involves four floors of shelving, of which the first three are supported exclusively by metal support beams, and the fourth on the floor. The system, very advanced for the years in which it was created, has been discontinued and there is no possibility for effective maintenance. Therefore, the project plans for its demolition. The ground floor will be used as a storeroom for the business office and for the moving of packages in and out through the big door of the “Grottone” and through the gate in the Cortile del Belvedere. The construction of two floors on special pillars has been authorised (also reusing and reinforcing the metal beam framework). They will be able to support the structure of moveable shelving. The undergirding of the fourth floor will be checked and possibly reinforced, where they will be able to immediately or afterward substitute the current stationary shelves with moveable shelving.
The entire electrical system and the air conditioning will be brought up to current European standards.

3. Numismatic and Medals Department, Gifts of the Popes
The Numismatic and Medals department of the Vatican Library is one of the richest in the world. It is situated in a space over the lapidary gallery. Reconstructed in 1987 and offering ample enough space at least at the time, it has turned out to be quite insufficient to hold the recent acquisitions and donations especially in the area of medals.
The Numismatic department shares the space above with the deposit of the so-called “Indirizzi dei Papi”, gifts of various types, particularly albums, even photographs, and different objects, presented to the Popes from the time of Pius IX until the present, partly kept here; a notable part of such gifts to the Popes to be found on display in the Gallery of the Vatican Library in the Vatican Museum.
The restructuring and relocating of the storerooms of the medals collection and the “indirizzi” is planned, organizing the spaces for the Medals collection, verifying the capacity of the structures and supporting walls to bear the weight, as well as air-conditioning both areas.
In addition, the creation of a laboratory equipped according to current norms is planned for the maintenance and restoration of the ancient coins and medals.
Even in the limited space that will be available from restructuring, an exhibition area will be created, not just for the coins and medals, but also for the molds, the instruments of the work of the engravers, and the objects of primary and secondary interest to this art which was particularly cultivated in the Renaissance period in Rome and Italy.

4. Restructuring the Manuscript vault
The underground Vault was created, as has been said, under the Courtyard of the Library from 1982 to 1983 for the safe-keeping of all the manuscripts of the Library, except those of the Archives Section. A section of it is made up of the Reserve, that holds the most precious manuscripts of the Library.
The project includes the construction of an emergency exit or escape route, (which had been considered in the original project but had never been built); the addition to the Stacks of an equipment room, located next to the bunker, and of the area outside the bunker up to the access staircase; and the transferral of the custodians to the upper floor. This allows us not only to acquire more space for the Stacks, which are now full, and to compensate for the space lost due to the emergency exit; but also to solve two problems which had been pointed out to us on more than one occasion by the Fire Brigade and by the Health and Welfare Office: the custodians of the bunker will be moved to a more suitable working environment; and the danger of flooding from the air conditioners in the current equipment room near the entrance of the bunker will be reduced.
The work will be completed with the application of special paints on the vault that impede the spreading of dust and with the resurfacing of the floor using analogous anti-dirt and anti-dust materials. The outdated and technologically obsolete air conditioning system will finally be replaced and the temperature and humidity will be differentiated for papyrus materials, parchment materials, and paper materials. The entire electrical system will be brought up to code and the most advanced security systems will be activated to protect not only the manuscripts but also the employees.

5. The work and building interventions and techniques of various types
Finally, there is a series of interventions and assorted works that would be too long to list. They are of a lesser proportion but aren’t of minor importance. Quickly, I am listing them as well in order to explain the need for three years to complete this project.

1)Construction and organization of the entrance for employees and smaller packages to the left of the big entrance door of the Library.
2)Restructuring of the elevators of the Prefecture and the Printed Books Deposit and their connection with the new elevator of the laboratories.
3) Planning and construction of the external emergency exits (anti-panic doors) of the Library (into the Cortile del Belvedere and within the Secretary of State) and exits/entrances for everyday use.
4) Air conditioning of the ground floor of the Printed books storage area, where the incunabula and other precious printed books are located, and air conditioning of the Prints department and part of the archives.
5) Completion of a system of Video surveillance, integrated into the internal network of the Library.
6) Transferring of 400,000 volumes to via della Concilazione 1 and 5. This involves 300,000 volumes that need to be catalogued and about 100.000 volumes that constitute the stock of the Publishing House.

Before opening the storage areas, especially in the second week of July and in the first of September 2007, the buildings and places where the works are to take place will have to be emptied, transferring the book materials to a secure location. Because there is no other space available, the restoration laboratories and photographic and digital laboratories will be transferred to the printed books consultation room and the manuscript consultation room respectively so that the services of reproduction and preservation and conservation of the manuscripts and the printed books will be guaranteed.


The official anouncement of the closure of the Library was made at the end of April 2007, after the approval of the Governorship for the overall construction project and by the Secretary of State for the closure of the Library for three years (24 April 2007). This anouncement was received by the Italian press in a manner that was substantially and correct and transmitted as such. The foreign press and radio of the English language gave the announcement in a manner that wasn’t completely correct. Fortunately, it was then presented in a full and comprehensible manner by the agencies of the American Catholic press.
The news had already been disclosed when the Library opened in September/October of 2006. It was received by the scholars with a reaction of well-measured surprise. The reactions exploded in a delayed manner above all after the graduate and doctoral students, that by regulation always had a limited number of entrances into the Library, alerted their patrons, who pleaded their cause. On April 18, I myself, before the official announcement was made, had given the news in a meeting with the Committee of the International Union of the Institutes of Archeology, History and the History of Art in Rome, that deals with the libraries and at which some of the directors of the major institutes, both Italian and non-Italian, were present. Because these directors were active in Rome in the fields of the indicated disciplines the news spread rapidly.
On behalf of Cardinal Librarian and the staff, I would like to reassure the scholars that usually attend the Vatican Library of the continuation and increase of some services during the closure of the Library: the online catalogue, e-mail correspondence, photography (photocopies, microfilms, slides) and digital reproductions of manuscripts and printed books. The availability, in these days of emergency, of our experienced personnel will continue during the period of closure with even more commitment and diligence in providing such services.
I want to remind you, as well, that in the United States there is always the possibility of consulting the Vatican Film Library at St. Louis University (Missouri), which houses more than 37,000 microfilms of manuscripts from our Library. (
I would also like to emphasize that the works of the next three years will be carried out in such a way that when we have to face any other large renovations in the future, it will no longer be necessary to close the Library.
For all that has been said here we ask our scholar friends coming from around the entire world for understanding and help. Our intentions, it is obvious, are to improve the services to the scholars and to make their stay, be it brief or long, at the Vatican Library pleasant and comfortable. The Vatican Library closes but to improve the work environment for the scholars and the internal staff for the next decades; therefore the closure, sad but necessary, is happening for the purpose of being in service to study, which is the constitutive vocation of the Vatican Library. We are making a sacrifice (and we are aware that we are asking others to make a sacrifice) but in view of a much greater good, even if that greater good is not immediately perceptible.
And finally, last but not least, if among all who are reading this there is someone willing to support the serious expenditures for the work that we are about to start, it would greatly facilitate the enterprise so that we could face it with joy, as it should be with every good enterprise that is worth the trouble of being lived through.

Raffaele Farina, sdb
Titular Bishop of Oderzo
Prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Library

Source: BAV – Vatican Library

%d bloggers like this: