Rushed scholars grumble over Vatican Library’s closure

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI was only one of hundreds of scholars making a rushed visit to the Vatican Library in late June and early July.

The library was set to close its doors July 14 and remain closed for a three-year emergency reconstruction project, which also gives the Vatican an opportunity to do some major remodeling.

Alessia Guardasole, a researcher with the National Center for Scientific Research in France, studies ancient Greek texts. She said she only found out about the three-year closure in May and had to rearrange her study plans.

“I was planning to come here in the fall and then come back twice a year for the next two years. I’m only here for two days; I have to get as much as possible done in two days,” she said June 27, two days after Pope Benedict visited the stacks.

Since the closure was announced in April, the library has almost doubled from 48 to 92 the number of scholars it allows into its reading room at any one time, said Ambrogio Piazzoni, vice prefect of the library.

“Still, we are having a hard time accommodating all the requests,” he said July 5.

The fact that the Vatican gave scholars only three months’ notice has led to protests and even a petition.

“That means we are important,” Mr. Piazzoni said.

But it does not mean the Vatican is changing its plans.

Archbishop Raffaele Farina, head of the library and the Vatican Secret Archives, said he had hoped to give scholars at least a year’s notice, but Vatican engineers insisted the work could not wait. The wing of the 16th-century building where the library and its reading room are located is sagging due to age and the sheer weight of the books and manuscripts.

Specialists in the preservation, the Vatican fire department and its health inspectors were insistent as well: The electrical wiring needs to be redone; air conditioning, ventilation and climate-control systems must be adapted to the specific uses of the rooms and what is stored there; and the underground warehouse needs emergency exits.

Writing in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, Archbishop Farina said that both for scholars and for the library’s holdings, the biggest problem is caused by the single entrance to the building. All workmen, shipments and supplies – including chemicals – must pass through the scholars’ reading room, creating a disturbance for those studying and a risk for the books, manuscripts and artwork.

Mr. Piazzoni said: “When the engineers first told us about the problem we moved 400,000 volumes to other locations in order to ease the stress on the building. We hoped by moving the manuscripts we could hold off on the renovations for a year and give researchers some time to finish their work.”
The news of the library’s closure left many scholars scrambling to finish research projects already under way and forced others to rearrange research projects.

Martin Bertram, a researcher retired from the German Historical Institute in Rome, has studied medieval canon law for 30 years. His research has relied heavily on manuscripts in the Vatican Library collection.

“I’m almost 70; I don’t know if I’ll be alive in three years,” he said.
“If I had known a year ago, I could have changed plans,” Mr. Bertram said. But he is resigned to the situation, adding, “I can use other libraries, and I do have other projects to focus on.”

Mr. Bertram, like several other scholars interviewed by Catholic News Service in the courtyard outside the library, said he appreciated that scholars can access the collection of microfilmed copies of 37,000 Vatican manuscripts held by St. Louis University in Missouri.

But sometimes scholars need to examine the originals, he said.
“Microfilm is not a faithful reproduction. You cannot distinguish all the marks or tell if something has been rubbed out,” he said.

Charles Radding, a professor of medieval history at Michigan State University in East Lansing, said, “It’s hard to see why we cannot see the manuscripts” while the reconstruction is under way. He added that both the British and French national libraries made their manuscripts available when they closed for renovations.

Mr. Piazzoni said the problem is that the Vatican does not have another building suitable for allowing easy access to the manuscripts. But library employees will continue photographing or microfilming the manuscripts, will refer scholars to St. Louis University or will answer requests for copies by e-mail or regular mail, he said.

Paula Findlen, a professor of Italian history at Stanford University in California, said she already has had to send one of her doctoral students to St. Louis University’s microfilm, which she said “is a good collection, but it’s not complete.”

The closure of the library is “a major disruption,” she said.
“I hope they will be able to open on schedule,” she said, hinting that previous experience with Italian construction projects means she really is looking forward with hope, not certainty.

Contributing to this story was Alicia Ambrosio at the Vatican.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.