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A rare look at the Vatican Library's treasures

A visit to the Vatican Library 12:26

We are about to visit a place few people have seen firsthand: the Vatican Library, a vast collection of historic treasures beyond compare. It was founded over five centuries ago, when Europe was coming out of the Dark Ages. It was 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. 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, as it is a place for scholars only.

Photos: Inside the Vatican Library

But the Vatican agreed to let "60 Minutes" and correspondent Morley Safer in to see some of the priceless artifacts of our collective past.

In Rome, turn a corner and you bump into antiquity - we arrived at the Vatican to find a medieval costume parade in progress. What better way to begin a trek through history.

"There's about two million printed books," library curator Timothy Janz told Safer.

And inside the library, the past surrounded us again, as we were shown the magnificent building and its riches.

Extra: What would you save?
Extra: A tour of the Salone Sistino
Extra: Why it's closed to the public

For instance: the spectacular Bible commissioned in 1476 by the Duke of Urbino. Janz tells us the Bible took years to make by hand: letter by letter, picture by picture.

"Decorated with real gold," he pointed out, while showing Safer the magnificently ornate pages.

It's just one of the library's 80,000 handwritten manuscripts from the ages before the printing press. Add to that 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

They are windows on the past.

And there's a huge collection of ancient coins, including the money used in Palestine 2,000 years ago. There are the kind of silver coins Judas was said to have been paid to betray Christ.

There is a map of the world, drawn 50 years before Columbus: at its edge, the Towers of Paradise are depicted. And the library holds an immediate best seller - Columbus' description of his voyage to the new world, published in 1493.

"In a certain way, the library is kind of the attic of Western civilization," Safer noted.

"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, an Irish priest who has written extensively about the Vatican, told Safer.

If you would put the library's shelves end to end, they would stretch for 31 miles.

"Is there anyone, any single person who really knows what the library holds?" Safer asked.

"Nobody knows exactly what's there. Because it will be impossible for the human brain, I think, to understand, to remember the titles, who wrote it, when they were written," Father Collins said.

"It is quite a treasure of humanity that you have here," Monsignor Cesare Pasini, who presides over the library, told Safer.

Produced by David BrowningIts Great Hall, essentially unchanged over the centuries, is a picture gallery of antiquity. There are images of saints, philosophers, and depictions of the great libraries of the pre-Christian world, including Babylon, Athens and Alexandria. It's a shrine to learning and to books.

"They came during the centuries, but now this is their home," Monsignor Pasini said.

"There's one person who can actually take a book out of the library, correct?" Safer asked.

"Yes, the pope can have every book in the library," he replied.

If Saint Peter's Basilica represents the splendor of the church writ large, the library nearby is a testament to the monks and scribes who made magnificent miniatures in times past.

For example, preserved is a manuscript of some devotional music commissioned by Pope Leo X. And there's the text of the Christmas Mass, used at the altar by Alexander XI. Both manuscripts, five centuries old, are written on parchment -

treated animal skin.

"You will often see the skin of sheep being used, sometimes goats," Christopher Celenza, director of the American Academy in Rome, explained.

Celenza is a scholar who has often used the library. He says that writing on parchment was not only tedious, but expensive.

"If a monastery wanted to produce a Bible that perhaps had 400 pages, it might cost you 400 sheep, if you're a monastery. So, it's an investment," he explained.

"Beyond the academic work, did you ever just come here to hang out and flip through stuff, and see what you might discover?" Safer asked.

"I think all of us have come here at one time or another with the hope of discovering something, having a general direction in which we're going, but not quite knowing where we'll wind up," Celenza said.

Or, from an 11th century treatise on the art of war, an image of a Byzantine soldier brandishing a flamethrower - something the Greeks invented 1,500 years earlier.

There are also 17 of Henry VIII's love letters to Anne Boleyn.

"The letters are certainly among the most bizarre and unusual that you'd expect to find in the pope's archives," Father Collins said.

The letters are handwritten by the king of England to the woman he would make the second of his six wives, and later have beheaded.

Henry signs his name with a heart, like a smitten schoolboy. He tells of his "fervents of love," his great loneliness without her. "Wishing myself," he says, "in my sweetheart's arms, whose pretty dukkys I trust shortly to kiss" - dukkys being a term in Henry's day for - well, use your imagination!

Asked why those letters are at the Vatican Library, Father Michael told Safer, "We don't know how they ended up here in the Vatican. It may be that some spy, maybe one of my priestly predecessors may have stolen these letters and brought them to Rome to present in the case a trial was made, for Henry's request for a divorce."

But the church refused to let Henry divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne. He married her anyway, broke with Rome and took control of the Church of England. The country was largely converted to the protestant faith.

"This is one of the moments in the 16th century that leads to the fracturing of Christianity and to much of the bloodshed and the wars that, especially, the later 16th century was known for," Christopher Celenza explained.

As man explored the planet, a scientific revolution was also under way. By the mid-17th century, navigators had mapped much of the world in remarkable detail.

Galileo turned his eyes and his telescope on the heavens. There are his drawings of sunspots, from 1612. For his insistence that the sun is the center of the universe and the Earth moves around it, the church branded him a heretic.

"The pope at that time, Pope Urban VIII, was a very good friend of Galileo. Said to him 'Look, you know, I agree with you. You're right. But I can't approve of this because I'm the pope. And if I go against this it looks as if I'm going against the Bible. And I'm going to shake to the foundation the belief of the world, and the world's Christians, not just Catholics,'" Father Collins explained.

Just 380 years later, in 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized for the Galileo affair. His successor, Benedict XVI, has sought middle ground in the centuries-old skirmishes between the church and science. In a recent sermon he said even the Big Bang Theory of the creation of the universe is not in conflict with faith because God's mind was behind it.

And backstage at the pope's library, science is brought to bear on crumbling books, as restoration workers deal with water damage, mold and the ravages of time.

"It seems endless, this work, yes?" Safer asked Angela Nunez Gaetan.

"It's endless, yes, obviously," she replied.

Gaetan and the others go inch by inch, patching and strengthening ancient pages, scratching off paste put on by well-meaning restorers centuries ago - paste that is turning to acid, eating away at the page.

Mario Tiburzi seldom reads what he's repairing, it's too distracting - especially if the writer happens to be Michelangelo.

A difficult job may take months or even years. But consider the result. "One thousand years after us, I hope that they can read the same thing that we are reading now," Gaetan explained.

The library's most valued documents go back almost 2,000 years, nearly to the time of Saint Peter - the first pope - whose tomb lies beneath the basilica that bears his name.

His letters to the faithful make up two books of the New Testament. The library owns a copy, written in Greek on papyrus by one of Peter's disciples around the year 200, a mere century or so after his death.

And from the same period, there are copies of the Gospel of Luke and part of the Gospel of John, also written on papyrus - venerated by early Christians in Egypt, preserved for centuries in a desert monastery.

They contain the oldest known copy of the Lord's Prayer. The copy is fragile and we were only allowed to see replicas.

"That great treasure of papyrus I think, is the most important treasure of Christianity," Monsignor Cesare Pasini said.

With our tour nearly over, it seemed as if the library's collection had come to life in the streets of the eternal city: the centurions and crusaders, the centuries of faith and folly, time present and time past.

Leaving the library we thought there's something - something almost magical to be immersed in this place, to breathe th

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