A rare look at the Vatican Library's treasures

Morley Safer and "60 Minutes" get a rare look at the cultural and religious riches

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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 Browning