Inside the Vatican: The Secret Archives

National Geographic Television Special
Airs in the U.S. on the National Geographic Channel

Page nine of eleven

Some 264 popes have reigned over the course of almost 2,000 years and in that time they have written major parts of the history of the Western world. Their stories fill some 30 miles (50 kilometers) of shelves in the Vatican Secret Archives, home to many of the pivotal documents of Western history.

Here you'll find the petition on behalf of Henry VIII seeking an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Attached are the seals of 85 clergymen and nobles in England, an attempt to persuade the pope of the justness of Henry's request.

The reams of red ribbon like those attaching the seals are said to be the root of the term "red tape." In spite of the ribbon and seals, the request was denied.

Incensed, Henry broke from Rome and declared himself head of the new Church of England. Almost 300 years earlier, a letter from the Great Khan of Mongolia arrived warning that if the Vatican wanted to maintain peace, the pope and his cardinals would have to come to the Khan's palace in Mongolia and pay him homage. Request also denied.

Some of these documents are slowly beginning to die of old age, thrusting conservators into a race against time.

In a conservation lab, they are carefully digitizing precious documents, like one of the few remaining letters in the hand of Michelangelo.

His letter features a timeless complaint: He pleads to a bishop that the guards of St. Peter's haven't been paid in nearly three months and their threatened departure will create a scandal Michelangelo wants no part of.

But nearly 500 years after he wrote it, iron in Michelangelo's ink has turned corrosive. Many of the graceful strokes from the master's pen have left the letter full of tiny slashes.

There's little that can be done to stop the corrosion, but conservators are working to ensure that more than just a virtual Michelangelo is all that remains.

Continued on Next Page >>


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