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Lux in Arcana: The Vatican Secret Archives reveals itself at the Capitoline Museums
The storehouse of the Vatican Secret Archives. The "Lux in Arcana" (Light in secret matters) exhibition at Rome's Capitol Hill will bring into the public domain for the first time in 400 years 100 original historic documents from the Vatican Secret Archives. The exhibition opened to the public on March 1 and will be on view through September 2012. AP Photo/Giovanni Ciarlo.

ROME.- At last, one of the most eagerly awaited and significant exhibitions ever hosted on the Capitoline Hill opens to the public. Starting this past week, everybody can admire the 100 precious original documents on display at the exhibition “Lux in Arcana – The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself” hosted in the splendid halls of Rome’s Capitoline Museums.

An unprecedented historic event which has conveyed outside the Vatican walls, for the first time ever, parchments, manuscripts, registers and codices covering a span of time from the 8th century A.D. to the 20th, selected from among the treasures that the Vatican Secret Archives has preserved and protected for centuries.

This is one of the City of Rome’s most important cultural operations. It involves the Vatican Secret Archives, Roma Capitale, the Rome City Department for Cultural Policies and the Historic Centre - Cultural Heritage Superintendency, and Zètema Progetto Cultura, and has received the High Patronage of the President of the Italian Republic.

The exhibition, open to the public through Sunday, September 9th, was conceived to celebrate the Fourth Centenary of the foundation of the Vatican Secret Archives and curated by Alessandra Gonzato, Marco Maiorino, Pier Paolo Piergentili and Gianni Venditti. The overall aim is to explain and tell what the papal Archives are and how they function, and at the same time enable visitors to view for the first time ever the marvelous things preserved on the shelves – approximately 53 miles (85 km) long, in all – of the Vatican Secret Archives.

The show’s title, Lux in Arcana, describes its main goal: the light that filters into the recesses of the Archives (lux in arcana) illuminates a reality that can be put to use only through direct and concrete contact with the sources kept in the Archives, which is opening its doors to the discovery of the history (some hitherto unpublished) recounted in the documents.

The individual documents on display are accompanied by in-depth multimedia background information – projections, dynamic graphics, videos on ultraflat screens – to help visitors frame the document in its historic context, learn the stories of the personages and create connections between different points of view.

Accenture - the global management consulting, technology services and outsourcing company developed the official mobile app for the Lux in Arcana exhibition. The mobile app, which is accessible through smartphones and tablets for both Apple and Android, significantly enhances the experience of the event by allowing users to explore all the documents featured in the exhibition, photos and images, detailed background information and rich multimedia content. Through the app’s augmented reality feature, users can tour some key historical sites in Rome, simply activate the augmented reality function on their personal device and access special, multimedia content related to the specific site, its history and its connection to the exhibition.

Users can follow the exhibition’s side activities via the best-known social networks. At, week after week, they can discover curiosities about individual documents and short descriptions of the people involved. A fascinating trailer of the show available at the site and on YouTube is very popular with Internet users.

The exhibition catalogue is published by Palombi Editori in two versions, Italian and English (224 pages, full colour, 14 euros). More than two hundred pages with photos of all the documents on display. One hundred fascinating stories told in clear and inviting language, accompanied by biographical notes on the main characters involved and a glossary of little-known or technical terms.

The show’s layout begins in the Capitoline Museums’ splendid Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii. It hosts the section titled “The Custodian of Memory,” which describes the contents of the Vatican Secret Archives. On display here is a selection of documents representative of the types preserved in the popes’ archives: diplomas and edicts, bulls and letters, papal briefs and registers, codices, accounting ledgers and trial records, formularies and codebooks that span twelve centuries of history, from the eighth century to the twentieth. They are written on different supports (paper, silk, bark, parchment) and come from different continents (Asia, Africa, America, Europe).

Here we can see pope Alexander VI’s bull Inter cetera, on the discovery of the New World; the registration of St. Francis’s Regula Bullata; the proceedings of the trial of Galileo Galilei; Charles V’s Edict of Worms; a payment notice signed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini; a brief issued by pope Clement XIV for the award of the Order of the Golden Spur to Mozart; and letters sent by illustrious correspondents: one written on silk and addressed by the empress Helena of China to pope Innocent X; one from Abraham Lincoln to pope Pius IX; one from tsar Alexis I Romanov to pope Clement X; one from Michelangelo to the bishop of Cesena, on the state of the construction work at St. Peter’s; and one from members of the English parliament to pope Clement VII, on Henry VIII’s divorce.

The show continues in Palazzo dei Conservatori with seven thematic sections.

The “Tiara and Crown” section displays twelve documents related to the centuries-long dialectic between spiritual and temporal power: from the forged “Donation of Constantine” to the Privilegium Ottonianum, from Gregory VII’s Dictatus Papae to Boniface VIII’s bull Unam Sanctam, from the surrender of the papal army in 1870 to the Lateran Pacts of 1929.

The section titled “In the Secret of the Conclave” comprises documents that recount the historic evolution of this assembly of cardinals gathered to elect a new pope. It also includes the parchment letter that the cardinal-electors sent to Pietro del Morrone, the future Celestine V, to notify him of his election as the new pope.

“Saints, Queens and Great Ladies” displays documents concerning famous women, from Lucrezia Borgia (pope Alexander VI’s daughter) to Bernadette Soubirous, the humble seer of Massabielle; from Christina of Sweden’s abdication from her throne to Mary Stuart’s last letter to pope Sixtus V; from a letter sent by Elizabeth of Austria to Pius IX, to the note handwritten by Marie Antoinette of France in prison.

“Dialogue and Reflection” recounts the Catholic Church’s internal thinking, its dialogue with other Christian denominations and other religions, and its evolution from the strict rules imposed by the Council of Trent to the more mature decrees of Vatican Council II. Also displayed in this section is a letter from Clement XII to the deputy of the seventh Dalai Lama; the pope requested protection for a Franciscan mission in Tibet and freedom for the friars to preach the Gospel.

The show could hardly lack a section on “Heretics, Crusaders and Knights.” Among the documents on display here is the record of the trial of the Templars of France, written on a 60-meter-long parchment roll; the excommunication of Martin Luther; a summary of the proceedings at the trial of Giordano Bruno, and Gregory IX’s Statutes against heretics.

Six documents are present in the section titled “Scientists, Philosophers and Inventors.” Some concern great names such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Voltaire and Erasmus of Rotterdam. Other curious documents are the design of a singular flying machine invented by a Brazilian priest named Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, a printed copy of the new Gregorian calendar for 1582 (the Lunario novo), and the pope’s recognition of Cambridge University. Interesting moments in the relationship between the Catholic Church and philosophic and scientific culture: a relationship intended in part as the papacy’s promotion of culture.

Lastly, the section on “Ink and Gold” displays fine manuscripts and illustrated codices preserved in the Vatican Secret Archives.

The layout continues in the spaces of Palazzo Clementino-Caffarelli, where visitors can discover the activities in the Vatican Secret Archives.

We start with the Seals Restoration and Conservation Laboratory. Since 1980 it has examined and restored more than 5000 seals. The Vatican Secret Archives preserves hundred of thousands of seals in lead, gold, beeswax, sealing wax, paper and wax under paper. One outstanding specimen, in the section titled “Symbols of Power”, is on a diploma issued by Philip of Spain; his solid gold seal weighs 800 grams (about 1 ¾ pounds). Next to it are other documents with seals, including the oldest seal in the Vatican Secret Archives, affixed en placard to a document issued by the Lombard prince Gisulf of Salerno.

This part of the show also illustrates the activities of the Restoration, Conservation and Binding Laboratory, whose purpose is to safeguard the documentary patrimony of the Vatican Secret Archives from the agents of chemical, physical, biological and environmental deterioration; and of the Digital Photoreproduction Laboratory, which has already acquired around 2.5 million digitized images, and continues to increase its collection.

The complex work of the archivist is recounted in two films on two different activities: the opening and study of a file, and the reordering of the documentation belonging to the “closed period” – the span of time for which the documentation is not yet available for consultation. The reigning pope decides when to “open” it; this is usually done for documents concerning the whole pontificate of a predecessor.

Some documents from the “closed period” – papers of the Relief Commission regarding World War II – are on display by express authorization of Pope Benedict XVI’s Secretariat of State. They bring to life stories of people and places against the background of the best-known and most tragic events of that period: stories of prisoners, but also of families dramatically marked by the violence of the repression; wounds inflicted on the city of Rome and on the Vatican by the weapons of the two opposing forces. Lastly, a letter that evokes the anguished search for Rosa and Edith Stein by one of their relatives. This document comes from the archive of the Vatican Information Office, exceptionally opened for consultation by pope John Paul II.

Lux in Arcana is thus an unprecedented initiative that has fuelled enormous expectations, due in part to the mysterious fascination that the Vatican Secret Archives generate in the collective immagination.

The Vatican Secret Archives is a cultural heritage of humanity, a heritage whose epicentre is in Rome. The choice of the Capitoline Museums to host this memorable event underlines the deep ties that have bound the city of Rome and the Papacy together since the Middle Ages. In fact both institutions involved in the event originated thanks to pope Sixtus IV’s appreciation of art. But at the same time, the history preserved in the Vatican Secret Archives is intertwined with the history of Italy, of Europe and of the whole world.

All of this helps make “Lux in Arcana – The Vatican Secret Archives Reveals Itself” an event of unprecedented scientific and media value.

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