The Vatican Library

Books for Popes and Scholars

The popes had always had a library, but in the middle of the fifteenth century they began to collect books in a new way. Nicholas V decided to create a public library for "the court of Rome"--the whole world of clerics and laymen, cardinals and scholars who inhabited the papal palace and its environs. He and Sixtus IV provided the library with a suite of rooms. These were splendidly frescoed, lighted by large windows, and furnished with elaborate wooden benches to which most books were chained. And, unlike some modern patrons, the popes of the Renaissance cared about the books as well as about the buildings that housed them. They bought, borrowed, and even stole the beautiful handwritten books of the time. The papal library soon became as spectacular a work of art, in its own way, as the Sistine Chapel or Saint Peter's. It grew rapidly; by 1455 it had 1200 books, 400 of them Greek; by 1481, a handwritten catalogue by the librarian, Platina, showed 3500 entries--by far the largest collection of books in the Western world. And it never stopped growing, thanks to bequests, purchases, and even, sometimes, military conquests.

From the start, the library had a special character. It included Bibles and works of theology and canon law, but it specialized in secular works: above all, the Greek and Latin classics, in the purest texts that the popes and their agents could find, for the popes and their servants saw these as the most powerful source of knowledge and counsel that the world possessed. The Vatican Library, in fact, became a center of the revival of classical culture known as the Renaissance. Its librarians were often distinguished scholars. Historians and philosophers, clerics and magicians visited the collections and borrowed books from them. By 1581, when the French writer Michel de Montaigne visited Rome, the treasures of the Vatican had become a mandatory stop on any well-informed traveller's Roman itinerary. To his delight, Montaigne was shown ancient Roman and ancient Chinese manuscripts, the love letters of Henry VIII, and the classics of history and philosophy (many of which can be seen in this exhibition). Then, as now, the Vatican Library was one of the greatest in the Western world.

The manuscripts and printed books that came to rest in the Vatican Library tell many stories. They help to explain the development of Renaissance thought and art, scholarship and science, in Rome and elsewhere. They shed light on the history of the universal Roman church and on the city in which it flourished, on the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation--even on the history of Western efforts to understand and convert the peoples of the non-Western world. They describe the new education, art, and music of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries; they show how the curia reached beyond the bounds of Europe, to the Islamic world and even to China; and they reveal some of the conflicts that flared up when the accomplishment of church policy and the pursuit of new knowledge could not both be carried out.

Please continue the exhibit in one of the following rooms:

Or walk back to the Main Hall.