Vatican Library

Vatican Apostolic Library
Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana
41°54′17″N 12°27′16″E / 41.90472°N 12.45444°E / 41.90472; 12.45444
Location Vatican City
TypeResearch library
Established1475 (549 years ago) (1475)
  • 75,000 codices
  • 1.1 million printed books
Other information
DirectorAngelo Vincenzo Zani
Location on a map of Vatican City

The Vatican Apostolic Library (Latin: Bibliotheca Apostolica Vaticana, Italian: Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana), more commonly known as the Vatican Library or informally as the Vat, is the library of the Holy See, located in Vatican City, and is the city-state's national library. It was formally established in 1475, although it is much older—it is one of the oldest libraries in the world and contains one of the most significant collections of historical texts. It has 75,000 codices from throughout history, as well as 1.1 million printed books, which include some 8,500 incunabula.

The Vatican Library is a research library for history, law, philosophy, science, and theology. The Vatican Library is open to anyone who can document their qualifications and research needs. Photocopies for private study of pages from books published between 1801 and 1990 can be requested in person or by mail.

Pope Nicholas V (1447–1455) envisioned a new Rome, with extensive public works to lure pilgrims and scholars to the city to begin its transformation. Nicolas wanted to create a "public library" for Rome that was meant to be seen as an institution for humanist scholarship. His death prevented him from carrying out his plan, but his successor Pope Sixtus IV (1471–1484) established what is now known as the Vatican Library.

In March 2014, the Vatican Library began an initial four-year project of digitising its collection of manuscripts, to be made available online.

The Vatican Apostolic Archive was separated from the library at the beginning of the 17th century; it contains another 150,000 items.

Historical periods

Scholars have traditionally divided the history of the library into five periods: Pre-Lateran, Lateran, Avignon, Pre-Vatican and Vatican.


The Pre-Lateran period, comprising the initial days of the library, dating from the earliest days of the Church. Only a handful of volumes survive from this period, though some are very significant.

At the Lateran

The Lateran era began when the library moved to the Lateran Palace and lasted until the end of the 13th century and the reign of Pope Boniface VIII, who died in 1303, by which time he possessed one of the most notable collections of illuminated manuscripts in Europe. However, in that year, the Lateran Palace was burnt and the collection plundered by Philip IV of France.

At Avignon

The Avignon period was during the Avignon Papacy, when seven successive popes resided in Avignon, France. This period saw great growth in book collection and record-keeping by the popes in Avignon, between the death of Boniface and the 1370s when the papacy returned to Rome.

Prior to establishment at the Vatican

The Pre-Vatican period ranged from about 1370 to 1447. The library was scattered during this time, with parts in Rome, Avignon, and elsewhere. Pope Eugenius IV possessed 340 books by the time of his death.

At the Vatican

In 1451, bibliophile Pope Nicholas V sought to establish a public library at the Vatican, in part to re-establish Rome as a destination for scholarship. Nicholas combined some 350 Greek, Latin and Hebrew codices inherited from his predecessors with his own collection and extensive acquisitions, among them manuscripts from the imperial Library of Constantinople. Pope Nicholas also expanded his collection by employing Italian and Byzantine scholars to translate the Greek classics into Latin for his library. The knowledgeable pope already encouraged the inclusion of pagan classics. Nicolas was important in saving many of the Greek works and writings during this time period that he had collected while traveling and acquired from others.

In 1455, the collection had grown to 1200 books, of which 400 were in Greek.

Nicholas died in 1455. In 1475 his successor Pope Sixtus IV founded the Palatine Library. During his papacy, acquisitions were made in "theology, philosophy and artistic literature". The number of manuscripts is variously counted as 3,500 in 1475 or 2,527 in 1481, when librarians Bartolomeo Platina and Pietro Demetrio Guazzelli produced a signed listing. At the time it was the largest collection of books in the Western world.

Pope Julius II commissioned the expansion of the building. Around 1587, Pope Sixtus V commissioned the architect Domenico Fontana to construct a new building for the library, which is still used today. After this, it became known as the Vatican Library.

During the Counter-Reformation, access to the library's collections was limited following the introduction of the Index of banned books. Scholars' access to the library was restricted, particularly Protestant scholars. Restrictions were lifted during the course of the 17th century, and Pope Leo XIII was to formally reopen the library to scholars in 1883.

In 1756, the priest Antonio Piaggio, curator of ancient manuscripts at the Library used a machine he had invented to unroll the first Herculaneum papyri, an operation which took him months.

In 1809, Napoleon Bonaparte arrested Pope Pius VII and had the contents of the library seized and removed to Paris. They were returned in 1817, three years after Napoleon's defeat and abdication.

The library's first major revitalization project took place in the period between the two World Wars at the instigation of Pope Pius XI, himself a scholar and former librarian, with the cooperation of librarians from around the world. Until this point in time, while it had drawn on the expertise of numerous experts, the Vatican Library was dangerously lacking in organization and its junior librarians were undertrained. Foreign researchers, particularly Americans, noticed how inadequate the facilities were for such an important collection. Several American organizations, including the American Library Association and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, offered to assist in implementing a modern cataloguing system. Along with this, librarians from the Vatican Library were invited to visit several libraries in the United States to receive training on the functioning of a modern library. They visited the Library of Congress, and libraries in Princeton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburg, Chicago, Champaign, Toronto, and Ann Arbor. Once back in Rome, a reorganization plan was implemented. The main goals were to create a summary index by author of each manuscript, and likewise a catalogue for the incunabula. Once the project was completed, the Vatican Library was one of the most modern in all of Europe. This joint effort highlighted the importance of international relationships in the field of librarianship and led to the founding in 1929 of the International Federation of Library Associations, still at work.

In 1992 the library had almost 2 million catalogued items.

Among a number of thefts from the Library committed in modern times, in 1995 art history teacher Anthony Melnikas from Ohio State University stole three leaves from a medieval manuscript once owned by Francesco Petrarch. One of the stolen leaves contains an exquisite miniature of a farmer threshing grain. A fourth leaf from an unknown source was also discovered in his possession by U.S. Customs agents. Melnikas was trying to sell the pages to an art dealer, who then alerted the librarian director.

Location and building

Ancient Roman sculpture, maybe of Saint Hippolytus of Rome, found in 1551 at Via Tiburtina, Rome, and now at the Vatican Library

The library is located inside the Vatican Palace, and the entrance is through the Belvedere Courtyard. When Pope Sixtus V (1585-1590) commissioned the expansion and the new building of the Vatican Library, he had a three-story wing built right across Bramante's Cortile del Belvedere, thus bisecting it and changing Bramante's work significantly. At the bottom of a grand staircase a large statue of Hippolytus decorates the La Galea entrance hall.

In the first semi-basement there is a papyrus room and a storage area for manuscripts. The first floor houses the restoration laboratory, and the photographic archives are on the second floor.

The library has 42 kilometres (26 mi) of shelving.

The library closed for renovations on 17 July 2007 and reopened on 20 September 2010. The three year, 9 million euro renovation involved the complete shut down of the library to install climate controlled rooms.

Architecture and art

In the Sala di Consultazione or main reference room of the Vatican Library looms a statue of St Thomas Aquinas (c. 1910), sculpted by Cesare Aureli. A second version of this statue (c. 1930) stands under the entrance portico of the Pontifical University of St Thomas Aquinas, Angelicum.

Library organization


The collection was originally organized through notebooks used to index the manuscripts. As the collection grew to more than a few thousand, shelf lists were used. The first modern catalogue system was put in place under Father Franz Ehrle between 1927 and 1939, using the Library of Congress card catalogue system. Ehrle also set up the first program to take photographs of important works or rare works. The library catalogue was further updated by Rev. Leonard E. Boyle when it was computerized in the early 1990s.

Reading and lending

Bookcase in the Vatican Library

Historically, during the Renaissance era, most books were not shelved but stored in wooden benches, which had tables attached to them. Each bench was dedicated to a specific topic. The books were chained to these benches, and if a reader took out a book, the chain remained attached to it. Until the early 17th century, academics were also allowed to borrow books. For important books, the pope himself would issue a reminder slip. Privileges to use the library could be withdrawn for breaking the house rules, for instance by climbing over the tables. Most famously Pico Della Mirandola lost the right to use the library when he published a book on theology that the Papal curia did not approve of. In the 1760s, a bill issued by Clement XIII heavily restricted access to the library's holdings.

The Vatican Library can be accessed by 200 scholars at a time, and it sees 4,000 to 5,000 scholars a year, mostly academics doing post-graduate research.


A miniature from the Syriac Gospel Lectionary (Vat. Syr. 559), created c. 1220 near Mosul and exhibiting a strong Islamic influence.

While the Vatican Library has always included Bibles, canon law texts, and theological works, it specialized from the beginning in secular books. Its collection of Greek and Latin classics was at the center of the revival of classical culture during the Renaissance age. The oldest documents in the library date back to the first century.

The library was founded primarily as a manuscript library, a fact reflected in the comparatively high ratio of manuscripts to printed works in its collection. Such printed books as have made their way into the collection are intended solely to facilitate the study of the much larger collection of manuscripts.

The collection also includes 330,000 Greek, Roman, and papal coins and medals.

Every year about 6,000 new books are acquired.

The library was enriched by several bequests and acquisitions over the centuries.

In 1623, in thanks for the adroit political maneuvers of Pope Gregory XV that had sustained him in his contests with Protestant candidates for the post of Electort, the hereditary Palatine Library of Heidelberg, containing about 3,500 manuscripts was given to the Holy See by Maximilian I, Duke of Bavaria. He had just acquired it as loot in the Thirty Years' War. A token 39 of the Heidelberg manuscripts were sent to Paris in 1797 and were returned to Heidelberg at the Peace of Paris in 1815. A gift of 852 others was made in 1816 by Pope Pius VII to the University of Heidelberg, including the Codex Manesse. Aside from these cases, the Palatine Library remains in the Vatican Library to this day.

In 1657, the manuscripts of the Dukes of Urbino were acquired. In 1661, the Greek scholar Leo Allatius was made librarian.

Queen Christina of Sweden's important library (mostly amassed by her generals as loot from Habsburg Prague and German cities during the Thirty Years War) was purchased on her death in 1689 by Pope Alexander VIII. It represented, for all practical purposes, the entire royal library of Sweden at the time. Had it remained where it was in Stockholm, it would all have been lost in the destruction of the royal palace by fire in 1697.

Among the most famous holdings of the library is the Codex Vaticanus Graecus 1209, the oldest known nearly complete manuscript of the Bible. The Secret History of Procopius was discovered in the library and published in 1623.

Pope Clement XI sent scholars into the Orient to bring back manuscripts, and is generally regarded as the founder of the library's Oriental section.

A School of library science is associated with the Vatican Library.

In 1959, the Vatican Film Library was established. This is not to be confused with the Knights of Columbus Vatican Film Library , which was established in 1953 at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.

The library has a large collection of texts related to Hinduism, with the oldest editions dating to 1819.

During the library's restoration between 2007 and 2010, all of the 70,000 volumes in the library were tagged with electronic chips to prevent theft.


The Abyss of Hell, coloured drawing on parchment by Sandro Botticelli (1480s)
Wandalbert von Prüm, July, Martyrologium (c860)

Notable manuscripts in the library include: Illuminated manuscripts:

Manuscripts relating to Christianity

Classic Greek and Latin texts

Medieval Greek and Latin texts



The library contains over 100 Quran manuscripts from various collections, cataloged by the Italian Jewish linguist Giorgio Levi Della Vida: Vaticani arabi 73; Borgiani arabi 25; Barberiniani orientali 11; Rossiani 2. The largest manuscript in the library, Vat. Ar. 1484, measures 540x420mm. The smallest, Vat. Ar. 924, is a circle of 45mm diameter preserved in an octagonal case.

Digitization projects

In 2012, plans were announced to digitize, in collaboration with the Bodleian Library, a million pages of material from the Vatican Library.

On 20 March 2014, the Holy See announced that NTT Data Corporation and the library had concluded an agreement to digitize approximately 3,000 of the library's manuscripts within four years. NTT is donating the equipment and technicians, estimated to be worth 18 million Euros. It noted that there is the possibility of subsequently digitizing another 79,000 of the library's holdings. These will be high-definition images available on the library's Internet site. Storage for the holdings will be on a three petabyte server provided by EMC. It is expected that the initial phase will take four years.

DigiVatLib is the name of the Vatican Library's digital library service. It provides free access to the Vatican Library's digitized collections of manuscripts and incunabula.

The scanning of documents is impacted by the material used to produce the texts. Books using gold and silver in the illuminations require special scanning equipment. Digital copies are being served using the CIFS protocol, from network-attached storage hardware by Dell EMC.

Gallery of holdings

Related libraries

Vatican Apostolic Archive

The Vatican Apostolic Archive, located in Vatican City, is the central archive for all of the acts promulgated by the Holy See, as well as the state papers, correspondence, papal account books, and many other documents which the church has accumulated over the centuries. In the 17th century, under the orders of Pope Paul V, the Archives were separated from the Vatican Library, where scholars had some very limited access to them, and remained absolutely closed to outsiders until 1881, when Pope Leo XIII opened them to researchers, more than a thousand of whom now examine its documents each year.

Vatican Film Library

The Vatican Film Library in St. Louis, Missouri is the only collection, outside the Vatican itself, of microfilms of more than 37,000 works from the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, the Vatican Library in Europe. It is located in the Pius XII Library on the campus of Saint Louis University. The library was created by Lowrie J. Daly (1914–2000), with funding from the Knights of Columbus. The goal was to make Vatican and other documents more available to researchers in North America.

Microfilming of Vatican manuscripts began in 1951, and according to the library's website, was the largest microfilming project that had been undertaken up to that date. The library opened in 1953, and moved to the St. Louis University campus, in the Pius XII Memorial Library, in 1959. The first librarian was Charles J. Ermatinger, who served until 2000. As of 2007, the library has microfilmed versions of over 37,000 manuscripts, with material in Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew and Ethiopic, as well as several more common Western European languages. There are reproductions of many works from the Biblioteca Palatina and Biblioteca Cicognara at the Vatican, as well as Papal letter registers from the Archivio Segreto Vaticano (Vatican Secret Archives) from the 9th to 16th centuries, in the series Registra Vaticana and Registra Supplicationium.


The nominal head of the library has often over the centuries been made a cardinal and hence given the title Cardinal Librarian. The effective directors, often distinguished scholars, were in an earlier period called "Custodians. After the reopening of the library in 1883, Pope Leo XIII changed the title to Prefect.

The library currently has some 80 staff who work in five departments: manuscripts and archival collections, printed books/drawings, acquisitions/cataloguing, coin collections/museums and restoration/photography.

List of librarians

(P) Indicates time spent as pro-librarian. this is the role of acting librarian, often a librarian who is not a cardinal.

Name Lifetime Title Duration as librarian
Marcello Cervini 1501–1555 Bibliothecarius I 24 May 15509 April 1555
Roberto de' Nobili 1541–1559 Bibliothecarius II 1555–18 January 1559
Alfonso Carafa 1540–1565 Bibliothecarius III 1559–29 August 1565
Marcantonio da Mula 1506–1572 Bibliothecarius IV 1565–17 March 1572
Guglielmo Sirleto 1514–1585 Bibliothecarius V 18 March 157216 October 1585
Antonio Carafa 1538–1591 Bibliothecarius VI 16 October 158513 January 1591
Marco Antonio Colonna 1523 ca.–1597 Bibliothecarius VII 1591–13 March 1597
Cesare Baronio 1538–1607 Bibliothecarius VIII May 159730 June 1607
Ludovico de Torres 1552–1609 Bibliothecarius IX 4 July 16078 July 1609
Scipione Borghese Caffarelli 1576–1633 Bibliothecarius X 11 June 160917 February 1618
Scipione Cobelluzzi 1564–1626 Bibliothecarius XI 17 February 161829 June 1626
Francesco Barberini 1597–1679 Bibliothecarius XII 1 July 162613 December 1633
Antonio Barberini 1569–1646 Bibliothecarius XIII 13 December 163311 September 1646
Orazio Giustiniani 1580–1649 Bibliothecarius XIV 25 September 164625 July 1649
Luigi Capponi 1583–1659 Bibliothecarius XV 4 August 16496 April 1659
Flavio Chigi 1631–1693 Bibliothecarius XVI 21 June 165919 September 1681
Lorenzo Brancati 1612–1693 Bibliothecarius XVII 19 September 168130 November 1693
Girolamo Casanate 1620–1700 Bibliothecarius XVIII 2 December 16933 March 1700
Enrico Noris 1631–1704 Bibliothecarius XIX 26 March 170023 February 1704
Benedetto Pamphili 1653–1730 Bibliothecarius XX 26 February 170422 March 1730
Angelo Maria Querini 1680–1755 Bibliothecarius XXI 4 September 17306 January 1755
Domenico Passionei 1682–1761 Bibliothecarius XXII 10 July 174112 January 1755(P)
12 January 17555 July 1761
Alessandro Albani 1692–1779 Bibliothecarius XXIII 12 August 176111 December 1779
Francesco Saverio de Zelada 1717–1801 Bibliothecarius XXIV 15 December 177929 December 1801
Luigi Valenti Gonzaga 1725–1808 Bibliothecarius XXV 12 January 180229 December 1808
Giulio Maria della Somaglia 1744–1830 Bibliothecarius XXVI 26 January 18272 April 1830
Giuseppe Albani 1750–1834 Bibliothecarius XXVII 23 April 18303 December 1834
Luigi Lambruschini 1776–1854 Bibliothecarius XXVIII 11 December 183427 June 1853
Angelo Mai 1782–1854 Bibliothecarius XXIX 27 June 18539 September 1854
Antonio Tosti 1776–1866 Bibliothecarius XXX 13 January 186020 March 1866
Jean Baptiste François Pitra 1812–1889 Bibliothecarius XXXI 19 January 18699 February 1889
Placido Maria Schiaffino 1829–1889 Bibliothecarius XXXII 20 February 188923 September 1889
Alfonso Capecelatro 1824–1912 Bibliothecarius XXXIII 29 August 189014 November 1912
Mariano Rampolla del Tindaro 1843–1913 Bibliothecarius XXXIV 26 November 191216 December 1913
Francesco di Paola Cassetta 1841–1919 Bibliothecarius XXXV 3 January 191423 March 1919
Aidan [Francis Neil] Gasquet 1845–1929 Bibliothecarius XXXVI 9 May 19195 April 1929
Franz Ehrle 1845–1934 Bibliothecarius XXXVII 17 April 192931 March 1934
Giovanni Mercati 1866–1957 Bibliothecarius XXXVIII 18 June 193623 August 1957
Eugène Tisserant 1884–1972 Bibliothecarius XXXIX 14 September 195727 March 1971
Antonio Samoré 1905–1983 Bibliothecarius XL 25 January 19743 February 1983
Alfons Maria Stickler 1910–2007 Bibliothecarius XLI 7 September 198327 May 1985(P)
27 May 19851 July 1988
Antonio María Javierre Ortas 1921–2007 Bibliothecarius XLII 1 July 198824 January 1992
Luigi Poggi 1917–2010 Bibliothecarius XLIII 9 April 199229 November 1994(P)
29 November 199425 November 1997
Jorge María Mejía 1923–2014 Bibliothecarius XLIV 7 March 199824 November 2003
Jean-Louis Tauran 1943–2018 Bibliothecarius XLV 24 November 200325 June 2007
Raffaele Farina 1933– Bibliothecarius XLVI 25 June 20079 June 2012
Jean-Louis Bruguès 1943– Bibliothecarius XLVII 26 June 20121 September 2018
José Tolentino de Mendonça 1965– Bibliothecarius XLVIII 1 September 201826 September 2022
Angelo Vincenzo Zani 1950– Bibliothecarius XLIX 26 September 2022

See also

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