Marjorie Eisenach shares her experiences with all things Italian during her international travels.
Through the auspices of a good friend, we were given a guided tour of the Vatican Library. What an amazing highlight for a book lover! Not only was our guide a knowledgeable resource, but Sister Gabriella Pettirossi (Secretary to Assistant Vice Prefect Dr. Ambrogio Piazzoni) had a delightful sense of humor.
We started by viewing the library vestibule, which had been the second home of the Vatican Library, its first location being what is the former papal apartments. Today one of the noteworthy plaques in the vestibule indicates that Pope Sixtus V excommunicated anyone who steals a book out of the Vatican Library. Now that is a tough but fair way to deal with book thieves.
There we had a chance to view a card from the pre-digitalized card catalog and learned that a delegation from the Vatican Library went to the Library of Congress to study how to design a new catalog system. The Vatican delegates found the exchange to be quite helpful and incorporated many ideas from the Library of Congress into their new cataloging system.
The third stop on our tour was the Salone del Sisto V, which is chocked full of frescos, one which depicts the granting of a commission to build the “new” Vatican library to Domenico Fontana. (photo) Other frescos included a history of the word from Adam at one end of the long hall to Christ at the opposite end.
During our tour, we learned about one of the more controversial popes, Sixtus V (1585-1590). In Rome if you say Pope Sixtus everyone knows that you are referring to Sixtus V, it seems that the other four don’t matter as much. Sixtus V is infamous, either loved or hated for the changes that he wrought in Rome. During his pontificate, which lasted only five years, he refashioned the city according to the Renaissance standards, changing its look more than any other ruler had dared to do before him.
One of the stories that we heard from Sister Gabriella demonstrated Sixtus’ command that silence be observed continuously in the area of St. Peter’s, due to the holy nature of the place. While workers were moving the giant obelisk that now stands in the center of St. Peter’s Square, legend has it that a sailor, who was working on the project, broke the vow of silence in order to shout out, “water on the ropes,” since he had noticed that the ropes were fraying due to the excessive weight of the obelisk. The ropes held. He was later praised by the pope for his bravery and his perspicuity.
We saw Sixtus V’s coat of arms displayed throughout the Vatican frescos and then started noticing “the pears and lion” in other sites around the city. The pears are emblematic of his last name, Peretti, which means “pear trees”.
The Vatican collection is amazingly rich in historical texts including papyrus codices of the Gospels. It also contains written work from throughout history – manuscripts from the Middle Ages, Italian Renaissance, as well as the libraries and archives of former popes and cardinals. The breadth and depth of the collection means that the library is a treasure not only for scholars, but an important record of human endeavor.
Marjorie helps American and British travelers build their Italian language skills and learn about Italian culture, sites and events so they can get the most out of their time spent in the country. Visit www.italyanditalian.com to get in touch with her!