VATICAN CITY - On exam day, geology students might be handed
a mystery rock to study, scratch and peer at, looking for
clues to identify it and hypothesize about its origins and
On exam day at the Vatican Secret Archives, student-scholars
get handed an obscure medieval manuscript to decipher,
transcribe, analyze and hypothesize about its origins and
"It's an elite school" for highly specialized and difficult
studies, said Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the archives
and the school's director.
It is so rigorous that only half of those who make it through
a highly selective admissions process actually finish the
two-year program and pass the final exams, he told Catholic
News Service July 9.
The Vatican School of Paleography, Diplomatics and Archive
Administration was founded by Pope Leo XIII in 1884, just a
few years after he opened the Vatican Secret Archives' unique
collection to the world's scholars.
He was looking to help experts in their search for the truth
- by offering not just access to the Vatican's immense wealth
of historical materials, but also a chance to improve their
reading and critical analysis of the treasures and minutiae
they find within.
Bare facts need to be complemented with "tiring and patient
investigation," Pope Leo wrote in 1884, which means the right
skills and a "maturity of judgment" need to substitute the
day's reigning "carelessness of prejudice" and "the caprice
That mandate still holds true, today, Bishop Pagano said, in
a world that still risks sticking to the superficial.
The Vatican school focuses on forming well-rounded
professionals who can conduct research "critically, seriously
and solidly based" on original sources, he said.
"Meanwhile, people who do not have these qualities, they
don't know how to read documents, they don't know how to
assess them correctly and, therefore, they often run the risk
of misunderstanding" what they see, he said.
The bishop enrolled at the school in the 1970s when he was
studying liturgy at St. Anselm University in Rome.
"I realized that if you're not able to read the codices, the
old liturgical codices, it's useless then to write a thesis,
because you're missing the actual substance" of what one's
trying to write about, he said.
While the archives' school was originally meant for clerics,
it is open to all people of any nation and faith, as long as
they are qualified in their field.
Students can take a one-year program in archive
administration or in Greek paleography, the study of ancient
Greek and Byzantine handwriting.
Only about 20 students a year get into the more difficult
two-year program that walks them through the study of Latin
handwriting; general and pontifical diplomatics, which is the
critical analysis of documents; archive science; the study of
wax and metal seals; and codicology - the study of books,
manuscripts and codices as objects and how they are made.
All course work is in Italian, and there are two five-hour
final exams followed by an oral defense before a cardinal-led
"We're very strict. It's not easy to pass," the bishop said.
Despite such focus on getting the historical record right, no
research publication is completely immune to typos and
During a presentation of a former student's book in 1984, a
Jesuit archivist reminded researchers to avoid quick
shortcuts and always to go through the actual tomes
themselves, no matter how dense, to get the real story.
For example, he said, if someone were just to rely on
scanning back-of-the-book indexes to gather information, they
would be sorely mistaken when reading an early work analyzing
the archives' monthly income and expenditure reports during
the pontificate of Boniface VIII.
The research book's back index incorrectly listed the Latin
term leopardus, that is, the American continental puma - a
very unlikely pet in a 13th-century papal menagerie.
Instead, the book's text correctly transcribed the upkeep of
a leopardo or leopard - a feline more easily fetched from
Africa or Asia.
The leopard-related expenditures on the papal payroll
included a chain pro leopardo for the cat; a crate ad
portandum leopardum for its transport; a payment to repair
the possibly overstrained chain; and a purchase in July 1299
to buy it a large quantity of meat.
Accuracy about the historical record, even of such small
details, becomes critical when dealing with sainthood causes,
for example, or understanding controversial events like the
Inquisition and the trial of Galileo Galilei.
Getting the story right requires researchers who can decipher
huge ranges of writing styles, curious abbreviations and
marginal notations, ancient tongues and dialects as well as
weed out a scribe's mistakes and verify the authenticity of
the document itself. It also calls for scientific rigor and
an objective, interdisciplinary analysis to make sense of the
once-deciphered text, the bishop said.
What makes the Vatican Secret Archives' school unique, he
said, is it is the only school in this field that can offer
hands-on study of so many original ancient documents from its
archives and the collections in the Vatican Library -
totaling more than 80 miles of shelf space.
"The good fortune of this school is having an archival
patrimony that is so close, cohesive and can be used in the
lessons," he said.
Bishop Pagano said a whole different field of scholarship
will have to be developed to study today's growing
Just as stamps, seals and watermarks helped prove a
parchment's authenticity, digital trails and "fingerprints"
will need perfecting to provide similar guarantees, he said.
The biggest dangers to a digital archive, he said, is the
data's vulnerability to being corrupted, deleted or tampered
with and to becoming unreadable, as formats are rapidly
"All you have to do is change one word and a pope becomes a
heretic," he said. "We no longer have any guarantee when it
is only electronic."
"I'll stick to paper because if it's written, I can see it, I
can evaluate it," he said.
His advice: Anything of importance should "always be on
paper" with multiple copies stored in separate locations.
""Never trust just computer technology to leave some kind of
trace. Only the written word remains," he said.