The magnificent Vatican Library, one of the oldest and richest in the world, was unveiled today after a three year and $11.5 million restoration.
Faced with sagging floors and major restructuring work, the Vatican decided in 2007 to shut down the library completely for the first time in its 500 years of existence and do the job properly. The Apostolic, or papal library was founded by Pope Sixtus IV in 1475, and did not even shut down during two world wars.
Amid protests and skepticism from scholars the world over, who scrambled to do last minute research before doors were shut, the Cardinal Librarian Raffaele Farina promised that the the library would re-open in September 2010. In a crowded press conference in the spectacular reading room known as the Salone Sistino (after Pope Sixtus V) Farina proudly announced today that his promise was kept and the job was done.
While it was shown to the press and officials today, it will be opened to researchers Sept. 20.
Farina explained that the unusual decision to close the library came from having done previous work with the doors open and realizing that the job they faced was huge, invasive and noisy, and would "compromise that atmosphere of busy tranquillity that is typical of our library."
The Vatican library houses what is considered the world's largest collection of manuscripts – books written by hand – 75,000 of them in Latin, Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Persian and more. In addition, there are almost 2 million printed books and serials, including over 8,000 incunabula - the earliest printed books. It also has a collection of some 100,000 prints, engravings, maps and drawings, and over 300,000 Greek, Roman and papal coins and medals.
The Vatican library specializes in the humanities: theology, law, philosophy, history, and science. "You aren't likely to find a book on economics here, " said one librarian.
It is also a library with a mission, said library Prefect Monsignor Cesare Pasini, in the spirit of service, humanism and universality. At its closing, Pope Benedict the XVI described the library as "a welcoming home of science, culture and humanity that opens its doors to scholars from every part of the world, without distinction of provenance, religion and culture."
According to Farina, the Pope followed the progress of the work closely. "Every time I saw him in the past three years, he asked me 'How is the library going? Will it really be finished on time?"
It is also not a public library. Only post-graduate researchers and scholars are allowed to consult the precious tomes, none of which can be checked out., except by the Pope himself.
"Occasionally, he has requested specific volumes," Pasini told the Catholic News Service in July, and they are promptly delivered to his office. "It's the pope's library."
With the exception of a modified entrance, special high-tech entrance turnstiles and two new elevators, little of the restructuring is visible to most visitors. The majestic frescoed reading rooms lined with leather-bound books on wooden shelves remain the same, while a new modern tower has appeared in the 16th century courtyard to accommodate another elevator which will safely bring manuscripts from the vault 12 feet underground into the manuscript reading room.