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The Pope’s Visit to the Vatican Library

· Roman Pontiff's library reopens to the public after three years of restoration ·

The Holy Father spent an hour among the ancient manuscripts and incunabulae of “his” library to bless all those who use it “to cultivate the sciences and the arts”, “as honest researchers of the truth”, and focus “their efforts on building a more human world”. These were the words of the Holy Father when he visited the Vatican Apostolic Library on the morning of Saturday, 18 December. The Library reopened to the public on 20 September 2010, after three years of restoration and restructuring.

The Pope went there for the second time, after first visiting it on 25 June 2007, shortly before it closed for a three-year period for renovation. More recently, in his Message sent last 9 November for the congress and the exhibition organized on the occasion of its reopening, the Pontiff stated that the Library is an integral part of the means needed to carry out his ministry, a precious means that the Bishop of Rome neither can nor intends to give up.

And he referred to this Message on taking his leave, when he greeted those present at the new La Galea entrance.

“Dear friends”, he said, “I would like to thank you for your work. In my Message I have already said what I thought about the need for and great importance of the Library”, he ended, before imparting the conclusive Blessing and wishing everyone a Happy Christmas.

Joseph Ratzinger’s interest in this Institution, which he chose to visit on the day it is closed, in order not to interfere with the research being conducted there, was acknowledged with three gifts: a bronze medal commemorating the Library's reopening; a 2011 Library diary bound in white leather and decorated with reproductions of the manuscripts and art works held by the Library and with sentences from biblical texts; and lastly a book: una casa sulla roccia: il tempo nell'eternità. Luoghi e parole di vita.

Having arrived by car at the main entrance on the Piazzale del Belvedere, the Pope was met by Cardinal Raffaele Farina, Archivist and Librarian of Holy Roman Church, by Mons. Cesare Pasini, Prefect, and by Mr Ambrogio M. Piazzoni, Vice-Prefect — who accompanied him throughout the Visit — as well as by the Library Council. Accompanying the Pontiff were Archbishop Harvey, Prefect of the Pontifical Household, Bishop De Nicolò, Regent of the Prefecture, and Mons. Gänswein, his Private Secretary.

In the entrance hall, at the foot of the grand staircase, by the large marble statue of Hippolytus, the Pope recited a short prayer, blessing the renovated premises. The brief rite was directed by Mons. Guido Marini, Master of Papal Liturgical Celebrations.

Benedict XVI then went to the prints consultation room on the third floor. Here he looked out of one of the windows that give on to the courtyard to see the two external lifts: one completely new and the other renovated in order to give access to the upper floors of the building. Mons. Pasini, the Prefect, showed him a book equipped with a tag that makes it possible to keep track of its whereabouts, as it connects the book with the reader. Lastly, the director of the prints department, Mr Adalbert Roth, speaking German, presented the two ancient volumes of the Gutenberg Bible that are kept in the Vatican Apostolic Library.

The Pope then went to the manuscripts consultation room 2, and stopped to look at an old print, presented to him by the prints’ curator, Ms Barbara Jatta. The etching which dates back to 1579, is entitled “A real drawing of the wonderful buildings, gardens, woods, fountains and the marvels of the Belvedere in Rome”, by the Milanese artist Ambrogio Brambilla; it portrays an overall image of the Vatican in the time of Gregory XIII, offering a close-up view of St Peter’s Basilica in construction, from the courtyard of the Belvedere and the Vatican Gardens within the wall built by Sangallo. It shows how the site looked before 1587, when, complying with the wishes of Sixtus v, a new home was built for his Library.

The architect Domenico Fontana planned the new building, which still houses the Vatican Library, placing it between the “Cortile del Belvedere” and the upper courtyard, today known as the “Cortile della Biblioteca” [Library Courtyard]. The engraving is inserted in the note from the Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae by Antoine Lafréry. The copy of the Speculum with the shelf-mark Riserva.S .7. was also shown to the Pope, the oldest that is kept in the Library, and indeed the one that is closest to the first bound copies of the collection produced by the Lafréry press.

This volume comes from the library of the French Chancellor Séguier, a politician during the reigns of Kings Louis XII and Louis XIV who was among the founders of the French Academy. It is still in its original brown leather binding, with a gilt decoration of lilies strewn over the entire surface of the cover, while in the centre gilded branches intertwine with other borders to form an oval.

The book, which came into the possession of Hippolyte Destailleur, and subsequently passed into that of the English archaeologist Thomas Ashby, was acquired by the Vatican Library at the beginning of the 20th century.

Benedict XVI also admired two old coins which Giancarlo Altieri, the director of the numismatic department, described to him. One was a gold medal of 1929, commemorating the Concordat between Italy and the Holy See and the Jubilee of Pius xi’s ordination to the priesthood; the other a gold coin of ten florins di Camera minted by Sixtus iv on the occasion of the Jubilee of 1475.

The former represents, on the obverse, the bust of Pope Ratti; beneath it is the signature of the Treasury engraver, Aurelio Mistruzzi. On the reverse, the scene portrayed and the dates around the top border refer to the priestly Jubilee of the librarian Pontiff: the Host above the Cup in the foreground is the symbol of the priesthood; the Basilica of St John Lateran and St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican in the background are respectively the places of the priestly ordination and papal coronation of Achille Ratti.

The reference to the Lateran Pacts is contained in the legend of the exergue. This medal, more than 82 millimetres in diameter, was presented to the Pope on 11 February 1929, the very day on which the Pacts were signed, and the Pontiff liked it so much that he also wanted it to be issued as an annual medal on the following 29 June, without variations.

The second coin shows on the obverse Jesus entrusting to Peter the flock that is feeding in a field with trees illumined by the rays of the sun. In the exergue two angels support the Pontiff’s coat of arms. The legend unfolds around them. On the reverse the ship of the Apostles is depicted on the stormy sea while Jesus, walking on the waves, saves Peter who is about to drown. Only three of these coins were minted by Pope Della Rovere (1471-1485).

Having walked through the manuscripts consultation room i and after greeting several benefactors, the Pope then went to the Prefect’s office where he was presented with the three gifts. He then went to the manuscripts consultation room i where Mr Paolo Vian, the director of the department, and Mr Marco Buonocore, the head archivist, respectively, showed him two manuscripts and a document of the archives. The first, Reg. lat. 124: Rabano Mauro , De laude santae Crucis , is a manuscript written and illustrated in the Abbey of Fulda in the years 822-847 when Rabanus Maurus was Abbot. He must have followed closely the different phases of the creation of the codex, in which there are several full-page miniatures. Among these, on folio 2v , is the image of Alcuin (Albinus) accompanying Rabanus Maurus and presenting him to St Martin of Tours: on folio 4v , the image of the Emperor Louis (Ludwig) “The Pious”. The manuscript belonged to Christina of Sweden and arrived at the Vatican in 1690. The second manuscript was Vat. Lat. 9850: Tommaso d’Aquino. Autografo della Summa contra gentiles (ff. 2-89) e dei Commenti a Boezio (ff. 90-103) e a Isaia (ff. 105-114) [Thomas Aquinas, autograh of the Summa Contra Gentiles (ff.2-89) and of the Comments to Boethius (ff. 90-103) and to Isaiah (ff. 105-114).

Next to Thomas’ handwriting appears that of one of his secretaries, Reginaldo da Priverno. Pages 14v-15r were shown to the Pope, with the deletions in the first hand-written draft of chapters 53-54 of the Summa Contra Gentiles and with the definitive draft written by Reginaldo, who probably drew the ass’s head on folio 14v . The archival document shown is a Bull proclaiming the first Jubilee ( inc. Antiquorum habet fida relatio ) which is found in the Archives of the Chapter of St Peter’s, capsa i, fascicule i, n. 9. This is the solemn letter (dated 22 February 1300), in which the chancellery proclaimed the first Holy Year. The Plenary Indulgence was granted to those who had made their confession, had done penance and had visited the Basilicas of St Peter and St Paul Outside-the-Walls.

The Pope  subsequently went down to the manuscripts storage area in the first semi-basement, where he also visited the papyrus room. In an atmosphere maintained at a constant temperature and level of humidity, Vian opened the second second drawer above the sliding shelf and showed him a papyrus scroll in three sections (in all 2.70 metres), from the “nomas” collection of archives of Marmarica in Egypt, with the registrations of land ownership (registrazione fondiarie — (dating from the year 190 AD). Reused shortly afterwards, at the beginning of the third century, to transcribe on the back the work of Favorino of Arles, the papyrus was acquired by the Vatican Library in 1930.

The last rooms the Pope visited were the new premises of the photographic archives on the second floor, and the northern section of the restoration laboratory on the first floor, where he watched a short demonstration of the work carried out there, by Mr Arnaldo Mampieri, the man in charge of the laboratory.

Benedict XVI spent 60 minutes in the Library. During this time he walked through the large rooms to take stock personally of the work that had been carried out and to return to admire the real “treasures of humanity” that are preserved there; but above all he savoured the atmosphere of a place where he might have cultivated his passion as a scholar, had he not been called to the Chair of Peter.

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