Vatican exhibition covers 1,000 years of European history


One of the world’s greatest collections has gone on display in Rome, writes PADDY AGNEW

RESIGNATION CAN have its drawbacks.

Take Pope Celestine V, the hermit from the Abruzzi mountains who reigned as pope for all of five months, from July to December 1294.

Celestine got the nod at the age of 80 when four cardinals and two notaries were sent to tell him he had been elected. Making their way up Mount Morrone, they came across a holy man in wornout garments, eyes “swollen from weeping”, with an unkempt beard and confused gaze.

Pietro del Morrone, later Celestine V, reportedly knelt down at the cardinals’ feet. Pietro only accepted the papacy to break the stalemate of an electoral conclave that had gone on for more than two years. But he might have been better keeping to his cave in the mountains. Years of the hermit’s life hardly represent the ideal preparation for occupying the seat of Peter.

Very quickly, and after having committed a series of errors in office, Celestine realised the mistake he had made and resigned. The problem was that his successor, Boniface VIII, decided it would be bad for business to have two popes knocking around, so he ordered that Celestine be imprisoned even before he himself had been elected.

With the help of supporters, Celestine escaped and went on the run for nine months but he was eventually caught and imprisoned in the castle of Fumone, which belonged to Boniface. In May 1296, 18 months after his abdication, Celestine died in captivity, perhaps having been murdered by Boniface or perhaps just worn out by his troubles.

The story of Celestine V is just one of many fascinating tales recounted in Lux in Arcanaor The Vatican Secret Archives Revealed (, an unprecedented exhibition at Rome’s Capitoline Museum that runs through to early September. If you are in Rome this summer, do not miss it.

A couple of years ago, thanks to Belgian publishing house VdH, I was fortunate enough to be given a tour round the Vatican’s secret archives by archivist Enrico Flaiani. Walking around a small part of its 85km of bookshelves was an overwhelming experience.

Coming face to face with original documents that touched on the life and times of such as Henry VIII, Erasmus of Rotterdam, Michelangelo, Mary Queen of Scots, Lucrezia Borgia, Boccaccio, Voltaire, Mozart, Galileo Galilei – and many, many others – was like taking a walking tour through the last 1,000 years of European history.

In 27 years in Rome, it was the first time I had had such a privilege, one that has been extended to the general public. Many of the most remarkable documents in the archives are on display here in a user-friendly, modern, multimedia format that makes this one of the most remarkable exhibitions that even the Eternal City has ever seen.

In the case of Celestine, the exhibition features the original letter that the cardinals delivered to him, announcing his election. All the documents are under heavy glass but they come complete with a little adjacent film show that puts them into their historical and political context.

There is the letter addressed by the peers and the lords of England to Pope Clement VII in July 1530, basically calling on him to hurry up and annul Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, or else . . .

This is not just any old letter; rather it is written in Latin on parchment about 90 centimetres wide with a 16th-century version of a spread sheet containing 83 signatures in 13 different columns below the Latin text, rounded off by 81 ornate wax seals.

Then there is Decet Romanum Pontificem, the January 1521 papal bull of Leo X excommunicating German Augustinian friar Martin Luther.

The inquisition of Galileo Galilei, the trial of the Knights Templar, a bill from Michaelangelo to the bishop of Cesena, a note in which Bernini “signs” for a consignment of marble, a letter to Pope Innocent X written on silk by the Ming Empress Helena – all that and much, much more besides are to be found at Lux in Arcana.

Again, this one is not to be missed.