Tiffany Parks takes a look at a vault of priceless, centuries-old documents that has seen the light of day in Rome.
Michelangelo's smudged signature, a secret papal messaging code, a 1200-year-old book and myriad blood-red papal seals, excommunication bulls, death warrants of heretics and letters written in desperation by condemned queens - these are some of the most precious documents in the world, kept for the past four centuries in impenetrable vaults in the Vatican.
For the first - and perhaps only - time in history, 100 original documents have left the Vatican Secret Archives and been shifted across town for an exhibition that opened a fortnight ago in the Capitoline Museums in central Rome.
The Vatican Secret Archives repository was founded by Pope Paul V in 1612. It comprises 85 kilometres of shelves, 30,000 parchments and millions of documents spanning 12 centuries that hold the keys to untold mysteries. Although the archives were opened to academics in 1881, access is restricted to elite scholars.
Showing until September 9, Lux in Arcana, Latin for "light in mystery", is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for anyone interested in world history.
As a history lover, I feel my heartbeat quicken as I step into the magnificently frescoed Palace of the Conservators, where the 16-room exhibition begins. Here lie the court proceedings against Galileo Galilei, bearing his unmistakable signature in the corner of the page. He was tried by the church in 1633 for arguing that the Earth revolved around the sun, was forced to recant under threat of torture and eventually died under house arrest.
Not far away, a letter in Michelangelo's own hand urges the Bishop of Cesena to resume payment of the workers on the halted project of St Peter's Basilica after the death of Pope Paul III. Seeing the 450-year-old signature of one of the world's greatest artists is in some ways more thrilling than seeing his paintings and sculptures; it is immediate and intimate. The power of the written word hangs heavy in each room. Moving from room to room feels like a journey through history, one document at a time.
Also thrilling to see is the infamous letter from King Henry VIII to Pope Clement VII requesting the annulment of the king's marriage to Catherine of Aragon in his quest to marry Anne Boleyn. The massive, ornate document, dated 1530, is signed by 83 members of the House of Lords and hangs with 81 intricate red-pendant seals of the most powerful men in England, among them Cardinal Wolsey and Lord Rochford, brother of the future Queen Anne. Many of the signatories were executed just a few years later.
Subsequent rooms are dedicated to themes that touch on papal sovereignty, the Great Schism and the conclave, the solemn election of the new Pope. Displayed is a chart of the Sistine Chapel showing the seating arrangement for the cardinal electors during the conclave of 1550, along with original papal ballots and voting records.
In a room titled Heretics, Crusaders and Knights, the papal bull excommunicating Martin Luther in 1521 is a reminder of a period of discord and upheaval unlike any other in church history. One of the most dramatic exhibits is a 60-metre parchment scroll containing the depositions of 231 French Templars, forced to betray the order or face death during the Council of Vienne in 1312.
It's easy to understand why the Vatican keeps these documents under the highest security: apart from their antiquity, many relate to atrocities committed by the church in the name of religion, and the Vatican is reluctant to publicise past errors.
In part to circumvent criticism, Vatican convention prescribes that documents are not released for study until about 75 years after their creation but in a historic move, several documents from this "closed period" after 1939 are on display for the first time. Seven documents dating from the papacy of Pius XII show the often-criticised Pope as a dedicated advocate for the protection of Jews during World War II. Critics have suggested, however, that the 2 million unreleased documents from his papacy might tell a different story.
The documents in the exhibition are not limited to European events. There is a letter written on silk cloth by the last empress of the Ming dynasty; the oldest paper document written in Mongolian; and there's the papal bull dividing up the newly discovered Americas, by Pope Alexander VI in 1493.
The Capitoline Museums, referred to in plural because the collection occupies several buildings, is a fitting place to host the exhibition. A collection of ancient bronze statues donated to the city of Rome by the Vatican in 1471 became the core of the world's first public museum, named after the ancient Capitoline Hill it stands on. Part of the museum was built on the ruins of the 2000-year-old Tabularium, the site of the archives of ancient Rome.
Each document in the exhibition is presented behind thick glass, well protected from the elements, and the presence of guards and security cameras is noticeable. Beside every document, multimedia screens bring the exhibits to life with detailed descriptions and historical context in Italian and English. An app with further detail can be downloaded free for iOS and Android devices.
Despite all the background and context, however, the documents raise more questions than are answered. Wandering among the archives, I wonder how many lives have been changed by these documents. How has the world been altered by these words? And how many answers to mysteries are buried within the millions of other documents the public will never see?
Lux in Arcana is showing until September 9 at Rome's Capitoline Museums, Piazza del Campidoglio, 1. Take bus No.84 from Rome's Termini station or No.64 from St Peter's Basilica. Opening hours are 9am-8pm from Tues-Sun, closed on Mondays and May 1. Entry costs €12 ($15) for adults and includes access to the permanent collection.