Secretive places closed off to the world invite rumor, intrigue, and mystery. These are places where anything could be lurking within their halls, and they attract conspiracy theories like moths to a flame, fluttering about bashing up against them but never gaining access and never finding the answers they seek. One such place that has long been a wellspring of strange theories and speculation lies squarely within Vatican City, and besides being one of the most forbidden places in the world is also one of the most mysterious.
Comprised of approximately 53 miles of labyrinthine aisles of shelving harboring rows upon countless rows of texts, books, and scrolls ranging from the more modern to fragile, time-worn manuscripts reaching back 12 centuries into the shadows of time, the Vatican Archives, officially known as the Archivum Secretum Apostolicum Vaticanum, was originally constructed in 1612 by Pope Paul V and is a truly a huge treasure trove of information collected by the Church over hundreds of years. This vast repository of knowledge holds state papers, Holy See paperwork, papal correspondence and personal letters, and countless historical records, documents and texts accumulated by the Vatican from every corner of the known world that date back to the 8th century, all housed within a massive, carefully climate-controlled structure adjacent to the Vatican Library that is designed more like a fortress than a library, replete with impenetrable underground bunkers and with only one known heavily guarded entrance.
The list of known contents of the archives is far too long to completely cover here, but includes a wealth of historical documents including handwritten letters to the Pope from such important figures such as Mary Queen of Scotts asking for a pardon before her execution, King Henry VIII, Michelangelo asking to be paid for his work on the Sistine Chapel, Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Grand Empress Dowager Helena Wang of China in the 17th century, one written on birch bark by the Canadian Ojibwe tribe in 1887, and many, many others. Here there are official edicts by Popes through the centuries, including excommunications such as that of German religious heretic and founder of Lutheranism Martin Luther, official papal decrees such as the one made in 1493 by Pope Alexander VI that split the entire known world among Spain and Portugal, as well as personal communications from popes throughout history. Here one can also find such gems as a nearly 200-foot long scroll containing details of the trials of the Knights Templar for heresy and blasphemy dating to 1307, as well as a handwritten transcript detailing the trial of astronomer Galileo Galilei in the 17th century, as well as the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which states that Mary was conceived without sin, scrawled out on a piece of parchment dating to 1854.
The Vatican Archives are often referred to as the Vatican Secret Archives, mostly due to a mistranslation of the Latin words secretum, which is actually closer in meaning to “personal” or “private” rather than “secret” or “confidential” as many think, but it could also have to do with the archive’s history of strict inaccessibility and reclusiveness from the outside world. They had been for centuries practically completely forbidden and closed off from nearly everyone, even Church officials, with not even Cardinals allowed access to their treasure trove of information, and it was not until 1881 that Pope Leo XIII allowed limited access to outsiders, yet this does little to dispel the secrecy surrounding the archives and it is still no small feat to enter this inner sanctum of all of the Vatican’s knowledge.
To gain access to these isolated archives and islands of knowledge one must be a qualified, recognized scholar or researcher who has been thoroughly vetted by the Holy See, a process which can take years. Amateur historians, journalists, students, or armchair researchers need not apply and are strictly forbidden. If one is lucky enough to be granted access they enter through the sole entrance, the well-guarded Porta Sant’Anna, after which they are required to state exactly what it is they are looking for among the voluminous collection. Once entering the rows of dusty old texts there is no browsing allowed, and you can only retrieve three documents listed in one of the thick, intimidatingly massive catalogs that are meticulously handwritten in Latin or Italian. If you cannot decide what you want to look at within a set amount of time under strict supervision you are ushered out of the archives and must wait until the following day to try again. Even if you do know what you want to look at there are still oppressive limitations on what is available for perusal. All materials in the archives are only released for public viewing after a full 75 years have passed, meaning newer documents are restricted, and even then there are large swaths of archived content that are totally off limits and probably forever will be.
Occasionally the Vatican will open parts of the archives to those other than academic researchers, such as it did in 2012, when some select sections were open to journalists in celebration of the archive’s 400th anniversary, but for the most part they are still largely shrouded in deep mystery. It is this mystery and the intrigue of secret or lost texts spanning over a millennium filed away in these remote, largely abandoned corridors that have spawned rumors and speculation about the extent of what the archives really hold, and the Vatican Secret Archives have perhaps not surprisingly been ground zero for all manner of conspiracy theories, ranging from the somewhat plausible to the completely bizarre and outlandish.
One popular theory is that the Vatican had relations with the Nazis during World War II, a conspiracy that is made especially intriguing as much of the documentation pertaining to the war is still banned as it has not been 75 years since its addition to the archives. Author, historian, and professor of anthropology David Kertzer managed to gain access to Vatican Archive documents from the reign of Pope Pius XI (1922 – 1939), and claims his research led him to conclude that the Vatican had made deals with Mussolini to remain silent on state-sponsored Anti-Semitism in exchange for various perks from the regime in the interest of the Church. This has led him and others to wonder just to what potential extent the Vatican was in league with the Nazis, perhaps striking up similar deals or collaboration, the details of which would still be buried in the secretive portion of the archives that has not yet been released. Kertzer has written of his controversial ideas in his book The Pope and Mussolini.
Adding to dark tales of possible Nazi collaboration is the idea that the Vatican Secret Archives house evidence and proof that various legendary religious artifacts such as the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, the True Cross, the Crown of Thorns, and the Shroud of Turin are all authentic and real, and that these relics are either housed somewhere in the archive itself or that there are detailed maps to their locations sequestered within. There is also speculation that the archives hold extensive information on the secret to the true nature of Jesus Christ’s bloodline and secular proof of Christ’s existence, like something out of a Dan Brown novel, as well as evidence of his alleged miracles, while conversely some believe that there is proof that Jesus actually did not exist at all. There are many other mystical and magical secrets supposedly buried within the Secret Archives. According to conspiracy theorists there are also numerous magical texts and spell books within the archives, as well as proof that demons exist and a vast amount of secret information on exorcisms.
There is also purportedly documentation on the Third Secret of Fatima, which was one of the visions allegedly witnessed by three children in Portugal in 1917 by the names of Lúcia Santos and her cousins Jacinta and Francisco Marto, when they encountered the Virgin Mary, who entrusted them with three secrets. Two of the secrets were revealed in Lúcia’s memoirs, with the first being a vision of Hell and the second being a prophetic vision that World War I would end. However, the third secret was always kept under wraps, as it was deemed that mankind was not ready for it. Speculation on what the legendary third secret contained ranged from a doomsday prediction of the end of the world to the Biblical Apocalypse, but no one knew and the Church itself ominously said it was “most probable the Secret would remain, forever, under absolute seal.” It was ostensibly revealed to the world in 2000, and turned out to be rather disappointing compared to the spectacular conspiracies, but there has long been doubt that what the Vatican released was the real secret, and it is widely believed that the true text remains hidden within the Vatican Secret Archives, of course.
The conspiracy theories and intrigue orbiting the Vatican Secret Archives are numerous, and go well out into the fringe of the weird. Alien bodies and spaceship technology? Check. Treasure maps to vast fortunes? Check. The world’s largest pornography collection? Check. Documentation of systematic child abuse and sexual assault within the Church? Check. The missing Chronovisor time viewing device, which purportedly allowed users to peer through history? Check. Full documentation of details of the Illuminati, who incidentally many think actually run the archives? Check. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are theories that Jimmy Hoffa is stashed away somewhere in the archives, and if you can name it it has probably been speculated as being hidden away by the Vatican here. The beauty of it all is that there is no way to prove or disprove any of it, and the sheer secrecy and exclusive nature of the archives makes it a perfect breeding ground of festering conspiracy theories that will likely never go away and which can’t be truly debunked.
Although there is no way to tell just how many of the documents filed away in the corridors of this vast archive are truly shadowy secrets willfully hidden away from the world, the Vatican Secret Archives are nevertheless a fascinating place that most people will never see. Regardless of whether there are earth shattering secrets here or not, it is a splendid repository of history and knowledge virtually unmatched by any other, and much of which has been stored away and forgotten for centuries, with even the Vatican itself not sure of its true extent. It is fascinating to think about what incredible discoveries could be contained within its miles of shelves and lying dormant within its vaults, waiting to be unearthed if someone were to be given free reign to search through it. Here a vast chunk of history is forever recorded, although mostly off-limits and obscure, and one wonders just what mysteries lie waiting in these halls.