LIGHT AMID HIDDEN THINGS; A SECRET DISCOVERED
"Lux in Arcana" Worth a Trip to Rome
By Elizabeth Lev
ROME, MARCH 15, 2012 (Zenit.org).- The Vatican Secret Archives evoke all kinds of mysterious associations in people’s minds. Some think conspiracy, others, the deepest mysteries and revelations of the universe. Others see it as history tantalizingly preserved on scraps of parchment and leather-bound tomes, or sometimes peeking out from a few faded lines of ink.
For the first time in its 400-year history, the treasures of the Vatican Archives are on display in a captivating exhibit at the Capitoline Museums. The show, romantically titled “Lux in Arcana" (Light Amid Hidden Things), alludes to light as truth and reality, illuminating things that are hidden by age, ignorance or a nebulous context. The venue, the world’s first museum, opened by Sixtus IV, next door to the office of the mayor of Rome and the place where the European Union treaty was signed into existence, hints at the colliding of worlds, secular and sacred, as well as the common body of knowledge and experience that the West shares through the written word.
From the 85 kilometers (53 miles) of shelves, 650 archival fonds and the millions of documents of the Vatican Secret Archives, 100 were selected for this exceptional show, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to look at history in the making.
The first room opens with a flourish. Twenty four documents from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas, printed on paper, silk, bark and parchment, show the wealth of creativity and the vast reaches of man and his desire to communicate.
Each case is a treasure trove, with something for everyone. A document by Emperor Otto I on purple parchment with gold letters, a letter from 1603 written in the Quechua language by Pope Clement VIII to the Peruvian city of Cuzco, or a letter written on silk from Empress Helena of China, make visitors feel like they have been transported to an epistolary candy store.
Famous personages parade through the displays: Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador, Bernini’s accounts, Michelangelo at work on the basilica, and the brief yet memorable passage of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart through Rome.
The convocation of Church councils is recorded among these documents as well as papal bulls dating back to the 10th century, when Pope St. Gregory VII battled Emperor Henry IV in the investiture controversy.
Several documents are perpetually surrounded by a giant cluster of onlookers. The first is an immense parchment almost three feet long. Sent by the members of the English parliament to Clement VII, it regards the “Secret Matter” of Henry VIII and his desired divorce from Queen Catherine to marry Ann Boleyn.
Another visitor magnet are the proceedings of the trial of Galileo Galilei. Sadly, as with most presentations of the ambitious Florentine scholar, the didactic accompaniment smacks of the stereotypical “persecuted scientist” refrain.
A special set-up is reserved for the section on Crusades, Heretics and Knights. A video screen projects flames around the room, no doubt intended to allude to the perceived constant menace of the stake during the years of the Papa Rex. Here one finds the bull of excommunication for Martin Luther, who declared in response that he “despised alike Roman fury and Roman favor." The 180-foot scroll containing the trial of the Knights Templar with its 231 depositions is stunning, as is the list of the heretical teachings of Giordano Bruno.
The next room is reserved for the gentler sex. The hopeful letter of Bernadette of Lourdes to Pope Pius IX recounting her vision of Our Lady sits across from the despairing note from Marie Antoinette a few weeks before her execution. Saints and superstars share the stage in this wonderful space.
The exhibit does not only focus on the collection, but also the efforts made to preserve the documents. The third floor reveals the variety of damage threatening manuscripts: insects, water, rodents, fire and mold are constant threats to the fragile written word, but the archive has battled valiantly to preserve these works. One can also see a day in the life in the archive, both above in the reading room and below in the stacks. The show cast light in every aspect of the archive, its treasures, its custodians and its students.
The Vatican Archive was founded by Pope Paul V Borghese in 1612, and opened to scholars in 1881 under Pope Leo XIII. But now, 400 years later, all visitors can feel the excitement of history and thrill of knowledge by visiting the diverse and encyclopedic collection of documents in this exhibit.
The Lux In Arcana show will run until Sept. 9, 2012. Don’t miss it. Indeed, come to Rome for it!
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