Vatican library reopens to scholars after 3-yr renovation; new security, climate measures

VATICAN CITY (AP) — The Vatican's Apostolic Library is reopening to scholars following a three-year, euro9-million ($11.5- million) renovation to install climate-controlled rooms for its precious manuscripts and state-of-the-art security measures to prevent theft and loss.

The library, started by Pope Nicholas V in the 1450s, houses one of the world's best collections of illuminated manuscripts. It includes the oldest known complete Bible, dating from about 325 and believed to have been one of the 50 bibles commissioned by Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman leader.

It reopens its frescoed halls to scholars Sept. 20. Library officials took pains to note that the renovation work was completed on time — a rarity in Italy but also an acknowledgment of the inconvenience the three-year closure caused many scholars who had to suspend their research while its collections of tens of thousands of volumes were in storage.

Cardinal Raffaele Farina, the Vatican's chief librarian, thanked those researchers "who understood the reason for the closure."

"Given the amount of what had to be done — the noise and the intrusiveness of the technical and construction work necessary — we decided the library inevitably had to close," Farina told reporters Monday inside the frescoed Sistine Hall.

Some 4,000 to 5,000 scholars are given permission to conduct research in the library every year; access is generally restricted to academics conducting post-graduate level research. None of the items in the library can be checked out, and rules for working inside are strict: No pens, food or even mineral water are allowed in the manuscript reading room.

Researchers will now find improved communications and elevator access to the Vatican's vast collections, as well as a new tower inside the Vatican's Belvedere Courtyard to ferry manuscripts from their bomb-proof bunker to climate-controlled consultation rooms. Inside the bunker itself, fire-proof and dust-proof floors and walls were installed to further protect the manuscripts.

The library's 70,000 books have been outfitted with computer chips to prevent loss and theft, closed-circuit cameras have been installed and new automated entry and exit gates keep tabs on who is coming in and going out.

The security measures stem in part from an incident in which an Ohio State University art history professor, Anthony Melnikas, smuggled pages torn from a 14th-century Vatican manuscript that once belonged to Petrarch. He was sentenced in 1996 to 14 months in prison after admitting he took the pages during a research visit in 1987.

The library was started by Pope Nicholas V with an initial 350 Latin manuscripts. By the time Nicholas died in 1455, the collection had swelled to about 1,500 codices and was the largest in Europe.

Today, the Vatican Library has about 150,000 volumes of manuscripts as well as the "Codex B" — the oldest known complete Bible.

During a presentation and tour of the library Monday, officials showed off a replica of the illuminated Urbino Bible, produced for the Duke of Urbino in 1476-78 by David and Dominico Ghirlandaio and others. The bible, one of the finest works of art in the 15th century, is said to contain over a kilo of gold in its illustrated pages.

Italian cement company Italcement paid a hefty chunk of the euro9 million renovation price tag while savings and private donations funded the rest, Farina said.

The Apostolic Library is next door to the Vatican's Secret Archives, which contain centuries of Vatican diplomatic correspondence and papal documentation. Citing frequent Dan Brown-inspired confusion, officials stressed Monday that the collections and institutions are different.