The Vatican Archive Through the Eyes of Its Prefect

23 June 2024

The Vatican Secret Archive, often shrouded in mystery and speculation, has long captured the imagination of scholars and history enthusiasts alike. In the newly published book-length interview Secretum, journalist Massimo Franco talks with Monsignor Sergio Pagano, the current prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Archive. It’s the first time the prefect of the archive has given a candid, long reflection on the inner workings of this institution. At the moment, the book is available only in Italian.

So why is it called the Apostolic Archive if we know it as the Secret Archive? The change of name came in 2019 as part of the Church’s strategy to be more open and transparent to the outside world. The prefect reflects on the decision to change the archive's name from Secret (originally meaning private) to Apostolic. The language evolved and the adjective “secret” started to have negative connotations.

 Cover of the newly published book-length interview with the prefect of the Vatican Apostolic Archive.

Interestingly, Dan Brown’s books and the movies based on them, Angels and Demons in particular (published in English in 2000 and in Italian in 2004), played a role in this decision. According to Pagano, they contributed to building the black legend surrounding the archives. While capturing popular imagination, these stories are, in his view, “absurd” and “nonsensical.” Changing the name is a step towards building a more accurate perception of this institution. The prefect also suggests that the decision to rename the archive was likely aimed at encouraging donations, especially through the US-based foundation “Treasures of History,” which financially supports the archive.

The Vatican Apostolic Archive, with its 85 kilometers of shelving housed underground, has long been considered a bastion of secrecy. Initially opened to scholars by Pope Leo XIII in 1881, it holds a treasure trove of documentation spanning centuries of papal history, ecclesiastical councils, and diplomatic affairs.

Franco and Pagano aim to dispel the myths and sensationalism that have surrounded the archive. With a conversational tone, they guide us through the labyrinth of documents, explaining the day-to-day operations of the archive. Monsignor Pagano offers a glimpse into what lies inside this „bunker,” which was lit by candles until the 1970s due to fear that electric lighting could cause short circuits and fires. The image of archivists navigating the dark corridors with candles in their hands, surrounded by shelves stacked with documents, is quite evocative.

Pagano has worked in the archive for almost half a century, serving as its prefect since 1997. According to Franco, he transformed the archive from “a sleepy and dusty repository of documents, without teamwork [among the staff members], into a research center respected and coveted also in the non-ecclesiastical world” (p. 9).

From the meticulous oversight of visiting researchers by Pagano himself, who monitors their activities on a big screen in his office via live feed, to the recent influx of scholars exploring the documents of Pope Pius XII's pontificate, the book offers a fascinating look into the archive's inner workings.

Secretum probes into the historical context of the Vatican Secret Archive, offering readers a deeper understanding of its role over the centuries. One of the most important aspects of Secretum is Pagano's reflection on Pope Pius XII and his controversial legacy regarding the Holocaust. Unlike many Vatican hierarchs, Pagano does not shy away from critiquing Pius XII's silence during and after World War II, attributing it to concerns about geopolitics rather than moral imperatives.

The discussion on the newly accessible documents on controversial and timely subjects such as Pius XII, the Cold War, Nazism, communism, and the Holocaust is particularly intriguing. 

The prefect provides insights into what kind of person Pius XII was, revealing personal details such as how he dined alone and kept pet birds, as well as insights into his views. To illustrate the Pope’s obsession with and opposition to communism, we could invoke one image mentioned in the book: the Pope submerged in reading l’Unità, the official newspaper of the Italian Communist Party. As the prefect explains, he was a very attentive, almost “maniacal” reader of socialist and communist press, following the rule of knowing one’s enemy.

Pope Pius XII with his pet goldfinch Gretel. Source: Vatican News.

During his pontificate, the first TV set was installed in the Vatican in 1949, reflecting the Pope's understanding of mass media, particularly radio and television, for spiritual guidance and pastoral power.

Beyond the account of Pius XII’s era, Secretum discusses various episodes from hundreds of years of the archive’s history and reveals some lesser-known details. The book uncovers encrypted telegrams from the 1922 conclave, a 1530 letter from British nobles urging Pope Clement VII to annul King Henry VIII's marriage, and documents related to Galileo's trial. The prefect dedicates a whole chapter to the particularly poignant episode in the archive’s history when Napoleon seized the Vatican Archives in 1797, transporting them to Paris, where they remained until after his defeat when they were returned to Rome in 1816.

In the end, Secretum is more than just a book about history of the Vatican Secret Archive; it’s a reflection on how this “memory of the world” is understood today and how the Vatican’s self-perception and views on the role of the Church in modern world inform the practices of preserving and making accessible one of the most important repositories of documents in the world. Preserved underground in a bunker made of reinforced concrete, protected even if bombs were to fall on the Vatican, it awaits the new generation of scholars.  


This blog post discusses the newly published book: Massimo Franco, Secretum: Intervista con Mons. Sergio Pagano [Secretum: Interview with Mon. Sergio Pagano), Milan: Solferino, 2024.