The Vatican Library is home to some of the oldest and most precious works of art and treasure known to man. Founded over five centuries ago as Europe was emerging from the Dark Ages, it holds manuscripts going back nearly 2,000 years. Morley Safer reports on this fascinating trove of artifacts and books that only the pope himself can borrow.
The following is a script of "The Library" which originally aired on April 10, 2011 and was rebroadcast on Dec. 25, 2011. Morley Safer is the correspondent. David Browning, producer.
We are about to visit a place few people have seen firsthand: the Vatican Library, a vast collection of historic treasures beyond compare. Founded over five centuries ago when Europe was coming out of the Dark Ages; a period of so-called humanism when the Catholic Church was open to new ideas in philosophy, science and the human spirit. It's the pope's library, but it contains much more than just church documents. As we reported in April, there are manuscripts going back nearly 2,000 years on music and math, warfare and exploration: even cookbooks and love letters. The library is closed to the public: a place for scholars only. But the Vatican agreed to let us in to see some of the priceless artifacts of our collective past.
Welcome to the 15th century. In Rome, turn a corner and you bump into antiquity. A delicious mixed salad of present and past. We arrived at the Vatican to find a medieval costume parade in progress. What better way to begin a trek through history.
Timothy Janz: There's about two million printed books...
Morley Safer: Two million printed books.
And inside the library, the past surrounded us again, as we were shown the magnificent building and its riches.
Janz: This is the Urbino Bible...
For instance, this spectacular Bible, commissioned in 1476 by the Duke of Urbino.
Janz: ...who wanted to have a very fancy Bible.
Safer: There you go.
Janz: And this is what he got.
Library curator Timothy Janz tells us the Bible took years to make by hand: letter by letter, picture by picture.
Janz: Decorated with real gold.
It's just one of the library's 80,000 handwritten manuscripts from the ages before the printing press. Add to that: those two million or so printed books, Christian and pagan, sacred and profane, in virtually every language known to man. There are thousands of prints and drawings - windows on the past - and a huge collection of ancient coins.
This was the money of Palestine 2,000 years ago. Including the kind of silver coins Judas was said to have been paid to betray Christ. Here is a map of the world, drawn 50 years before Columbus: at its edge, the towers of paradise. And an immediate best seller, Columbus' description of his voyage to the new world, published in 1493.
Safer: In a certain way, the library is kind of the attic of Western civilization.
Father Michael Collins: It's so true. And it's like many attics, you know? You put things up all the time. You keep on pushing over boxes to make space for more things.
Father Michael Collins is an Irish priest who's written extensively about the Vatican. Where the library's shelves - if you put them end to end - would stretch for 31 miles.
Safer: Is there anyone, any single person who really knows what the library holds?