Publication Date

May 1, 1999



The Status Quo Ante

In fall 1996, word began to filter out that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (known until the end of the Second Vatican Council as the Holy Office) was beginning to open its archive to scholars on a regular basis. Since the late 19th century, when modern historical research on the Inquisition began, the number of scholars allowed to work in that archive can easily be counted on the fingers of two hands. Why the powers that be in Vatican City responded favorably to certain requests is not difficult to determine. In Italian ecclesiastical archives, scholarly credentials and even religious affiliation carry less weight than connections. Those few who obtained special permission to consult Inquisition materials were able to tap some extraordinary sources of influence.

In the 1940s, for instance, a cardinal from Turin assisted Luigi Firpo, a well-known anticlerical, in getting in to see the file on Giordano Bruno. As Firpo was fond of recalling, the entire time he was there a monsignor peered over his shoulder to scrutinize the notes he was taking and make sure that his eyes did not stray from the pages he had been authorized to examine. Decades later, a French cardinal enabled Pietro Redondi to inspect what remained in the Holy Office archive of the dossier on Galileo, much of which had long since been transferred to the Archivio Segreto Vaticano. Redondi used a memorandum of mysterious provenance to argue—not very convincingly—that the Inquisition was concerned not so much with the natural philosopher's endorsement of the Copernican hypothesis as with his alleged espousal of atomism, which called into question the doctrine of the immortality of the soul.

Obtaining access to the archives did not necessarily require a cardinal's help. Sergio Pagano's being employed in the Vatican Archives, of which he is now Prefect, smoothed the way toward his seeing and publishing the records on the trial of Galileo and the posthumous probes of Vittoria Colonna and Reginald Pole. Gigliola Fragnito, author of a recent study based in part on records of the Congregation of the Index (housed in the same archive), freely admits that she had a silent in-house padrino, her husband. She did not even need to explicitly invoke his name: Francesco Margiotta Broglio, a professor of law who helped to prepare the "New Concordat" of 1984 between the Holy See and the Italian state, was well known to the men at Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio, and therefore so was she.

The roster of those who were not let into the archive is much longer. For his massive History of the Popes since the End of the Middle Ages, that eminent historian and practicing Catholic Ludwig von Pastor tried but failed to obtain permission to use Holy Office materials. Massimo Firpo, who with Dario Marcatto has performed prodigious feats of detective work in tracking down and collating documents from 16th-century Inquisition trials that somehow or other made their way out of the Sancta Sanctorum, told me that one day in a quixotic mood he rang the bell at Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio. When he informed the functionary who answered that he had come to see the records of the trial of Giovanni Cardinal Morone, the door swung shut in his face. In article after article, book after book, excluded scholars commented with varying degrees of acerbity about the congregation’s closed-door policy.

The reason for the Vatican's reluctance to make Inquisition documents available, which as we shall see has not been entirely overcome, is clear. Because of the long estrangement between the papacy and the secular sphere, dating back to the separation between clerics and the laity accomplished during the Counter Reformation and intensified in the 19th and early 20th centuries by the church's antagonism toward the liberal state and the crisis of modernism, some Catholic clergy, particularly Italians, fear historical scholarship. In their anachronistic opinion, all too many historians are fierce anticlericals bent on dredging up and displaying the church's dirty laundry. A recent example suggests that even insiders have not proven to be entirely "trustworthy" in this regard. The Apostolic Penitentiary, another branch of the papal administration, receives and acts on a wide range of petitions for pardons and dispensations. About 10 years ago, its records, held in the Vatican Archives, became accessible. A priest employed there, Filippo Tamburini, dove into the archive and published two books that might be characterized as "spicy stories from the penitentiary." To a lay historian like me, they seem rather innocuous, but the pope's men viewed them differently. Tamburini was fired and demoted from the rank of monsignor, and the penitentiary is now very carefully screening all applications to use its materials in order to make sure that no "scandalmongers" get in.1

Why the Change?

What explains what appears at first sight to be an abrupt, dramatic change of policy concerning access to the records of the congregation of the ex-Holy Office? Strange as it may seem, the motive force is the pope himself. On most matters, especially doctrinal, John Paul II can hardly be considered a proponent of aggiornamento. Throughout his pontificate, however, on his many journeys and in his apostolic letter Tertio millennio advieniente, he has sought like an Old Testament prophet to project a new image of the church as the defender of human rights. This new trend, closely connected with the forthcoming jubilee marking Christianity’s third millennium, involves among other things the church’s coming to terms with its history, acknowledging and apologizing for the injustices it has perpetrated. Opening “the archives of repression” to scholars, a suggestion made by Carlo Ginzburg at the beginning of John Paul II’s pontificate, has come to constitute an essential part of his mission.

Maintaining fidelity to a medieval conception of doctrine and at the same time recognizing modern secular values is by no means an easy balancing act. How John Paul II managed to convince the even more theologically conservative prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, to take this step God only knows. Various signs suggest the opening was the pope's spur-of-the-moment inspiration, not the result of a consensus producing a plan discussed at length and implemented with care. First, the official put in charge of the archive is neither an authoritative senior figure nor a trained archivist but a relatively young Spanish priest, Monsignor Alejandro Cifres Gimènes. While able and ambitious, Cifres has not been given adequate staff and funds to catalogue the materials, nor space to accommodate the scholars who want to use them. The reading room is well lit and equipped with electrical outlets for computers, but seats only 12 people. Second, the procedure for gaining admission, never publicly stated, has changed over the past two years. In the beginning, an aspirant of whatever or no religious faith was expected to make application via the bishop of his or her diocese. Now, with a letter from a professor, even a graduate student can get in.

Third, the opening has taken place sotto voce and incompletely. Not until January 1998 was it publicly announced by the papal media on the eve of a one-day conference, jointly sponsored by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, which was held—by accident or design?—while the pope and the entire Vatican press corps were in Cuba. (Since then, feature stories of varying degrees of accuracy have appeared in newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times, Der Spiegel, and L'Espresso.) At that conference, which I attended, the secretary of the congregation, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, stated that “naturally,” neither materials subsequent to 1903 nor anything having to do with such “delicate matters” as solicitation of sexual favors in the confessional would be made available for consultation.2

What Awaits Us?

Nonetheless, the archive is at last open. What does it contain? For years, John Tedeschi, dean of Roman Inquisition studies in the United States, has been warning us not to expect a gold mine. First, most of the paperwork assembled before 1559 went up in flames when a Roman crowd torched the palace of the Inquisition to celebrate the death of Paul IV. Then, in 1810, Napoleon ordered that the entire archive be carted up to Paris. Six years later, after his fall, the papal agent charged with recovering the material had much of it burned or sold as scrap paper on the dubious ground that the cost of shipping it all back to Rome was too high.3 Tedeschi was right. It has quickly become evident that only a small fraction of the trial records once held in the archive has survived. Since there is nothing remotely resembling the Spanish Suprema’s relaciones de causas, anyone who hoped to emulate the accomplishments of Jaime Contreras, Gustav Henningsen, and Jean-Pierre Dedieu by studying the Roman Inquisition’s operations quantitatively, must take up some other project. As Andrea Del Col and Giovanna Paolin have discovered, it is not even possible to find a continuous series of cases, along with correspondence between the congregation and a tribunal on the periphery, for a single diocese, the patriarchate of Aquileia, over a short span of time.

At this point, because inventorying of the archive is progressing slowly, it is impossible to know exactly what and how much it contains. In June 1997, the first time I worked there, one had to ask an employee to find material, giving one or more names of individuals known from other sources to have been put on trial. When something was brought out, one had to trust that nothing had been deliberately held back; if the employee said there was nothing, one had to take it on faith that it was the truth. Now (as of my latest visit on January 4, 1999), preliminary inventories of material in three categories—the Stanza Storica, the Congregation of the Index, and the Inquisition of Siena—are available for consultation in the reading room. These, however, almost certainly do not cover the entire holdings of the archive. One friend who had a fleeting opportunity to accompany a staff member into other rooms told me that the floors are stacked with materials so covered with dust that obviously no one has moved, let alone examined, them for centuries.

Opening the Holy Office's central archive, therefore, has by no means obviated the necessity of working in the peripheral archives, some 25 of which are known to exist. The largest deposits are to be found in the Archivio della Curia Arcivescovile of Udine, the Archivio di Stato of Venice, the Archivio di Stato of Modena, the Archivio Arcivescovile of Florence, and the Archivio Storico Diocesano of Naples. Once the current generation of diocesan archivists, many of them intent on shielding "sensitive" materials from view, passes from the scene, historians may be allowed to see Holy Office archives known or suspected to exist but hitherto inaccessible, as well as series of criminal trial records that undoubtedly contain Inquisition cases. Even now, if one gets lucky, moving between the peripheral archives and the central depository can prove fruitful.

In my almost completed book, "Clipped Wings: Pretense of Sanctity, the Inquisition, and Gender in Early Modern Venice," I examine 12 trials conducted by the Venetian Inquisition against people who believed they had a direct pipeline to God. Although all these cases were undoubtedly referred to the Congregation of the Holy Office, materials on only two remain in the Roman archive. I was pleasantly surprised to discover a weighty dossier on my favorite unsuccessful "aspiring saint," Cecilia Ferrazzi. Much of it consists of a copy of the trial record, which I had already examined in the Archivio di Stato of Venice, but it also contains correspondence between Agapito Ugoni, inquisitor general of Venice, and the congregation. These letters confirm two related details I had conjectured about but had not been able to pin down. First, Ugoni clearly had a strong personal animus against the defendant, whom he considered not only a heretic but a woman who had risen too far above her social station. Second, it was Ferrazzi's long-time friend Cardinal Gregorio Barbarigo who, to the inquisitor's great annoyance, managed eventually to get her released from confinement.4

Another fascinating find in the inventories I intend to exploit in the future. I had assumed that the tendentiously framed, socially discriminatory charge "pretense of sanctity" was a phenomenon restricted to the early modern period. Wrong! The preliminary inventory of the Stanza Storica lists dozens of 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century dossiers falling into this category. Until at least 1902, the Inquisition continued to prosecute cases of pretense of sanctity. For all I know, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may still be doing so.

Beyond the limited range of my own concerns and the important but not particularly pathbreaking task of filling in the picture on already well-known "heretics," to what other uses can the archive of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith be put? A few examples will suggest some of the possibilities. An Èquipe under the direction of Ugo Baldini is combing the archive for references to the natural sciences. Irene Fosi, who studies the administration of justice in early modern Italy, has begun to demonstrate the connections and similarities in modes of operation between the Holy Office and other Roman courts, ecclesiastical and secular. Even more exciting from my point of view are research efforts based on the records of the Holy Office's twin, the Congregation of the Index. Its records for the entire period of its existence (1571–1917), in contrast to those of the Inquisition, appear to have survived virtually intact.

Gigliola Fragnito's book on the shutdown of publication of vernacular Bibles and collections of scriptural passages in whatever form, which lasted from 1605 until 1773, provides a palate-whetting taste of what can be anticipated. So do Peter Godman's and Silvana Seidel Menchi's reports on work in progress concerning the banning of some works by Machiavelli and Erasmus and the attempt to censor others.5 Here we are dealing with social discipline and confessionalization writ large—in other words, with the Counter-Reformation effort to control printed expression of ideas believed to bear in any conceivable way on the Catholic faith.

In the mid-1960s, when my department chair (perhaps unwisely) required me to teach the second half of Western Civ, I tried feebly to explain why totalitarianism was exclusively a 20th-century phenomenon. If I had to do so again, the studies beginning to emerge from research conducted at Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio would furnish marvelous examples of how unrealistic the ambition of total control in the early modern era proved to be. The Congregation of the Index's problems stemmed from the fact that its eyes were bigger than its stomach. It lacked the technical capability of obtaining and processing many thousands of books long in print or just rolling off European presses, and it was unable to muster sufficient qualified personnel to scrutinize books in several languages on a wide range of topics. If several readers marked up and made notes on a single work, the standard modus operandi in the late 16th century, how were their divergent opinions to be collated and reconciled? How could the cardinals on the congregation, who were not of a single mind either, possibly process and act on all the annotated tomes and associated memoranda they received? And how were they to set priorities?

Let us imagine that one of perhaps a dozen books they considered in a particular session was a work on treating syphilis by a famous physician known to be a Lutheran, issued two years earlier in Leipzig. Since it had been published in a Protestant region, no inquisitor had vetted the manuscript before the book was printed. The congregation's experts had provided very favorable reports on this work, suggesting that only a few words in the preface needed to be inked out or pasted over with strips of paper. Should the book be approved donec corrigatur? If so, then who was to track down the hundreds or thousands of its owners throughout the Catholic world and assure that the cancellations were made?

This hypothetical example illustrates the insuperable bureaucratic and conceptual difficulties raised by the Congregation of the Index's impossibly ambitious objective. Like the studies of other subjects mentioned earlier, it suggests very clearly what the archive can yield: rich material for reflection on attempts to control ideas and behavior that should interest historians, political scientists, sociologists, philosophers, and—if the findings are appropriately presented—a wider public. Notwithstanding the shortcomings in holdings and administration of the Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith outlined here, all scholars should welcome its opening.

Gaining Access to the Archive

Write a letter explaining your research project in detail and requesting permission to consult the archive. Address it to His Eminence Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Prefect, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Palazzo del Sant'Uffizio, Piazza del Sant'Uffizio 11 00120 Città del Vaticano. (If you are a Catholic, it would be wise to send your bishop a copy of this letter.) Ask a scholar who knows you and your work well, preferably someone who has worked in the archive, to send a recommendation to Cardinal Ratzinger.

Once you have been granted access, reserve a place in the reading room at least two weeks in advance by communicating with the director, Monsignor Alejandro Cifres Gimènes, by letter (Archive of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, address above), telephone (011-39-06/6988 4778 [or 1956 or 4735]), fax (011-39-06/6988 3409), or e-mail ( Reservations may be made for a maximum of two weeks; extensions are at the director's discretion. Except on major religious holidays and during the Vatican's summer vacation (circa July 15–September 15), the archive—located immediately to the left (south) of the colonnade surrounding Piazza San Pietro—is open from 8:30 to 1:15 Monday through Saturday.


1. Space limitations preclude providing references to all the works mentioned here. Most of them are mentioned in the recent review article by Olivier Poncet, "L'ouverture des archives du Saint Office et de l'Index: .chos d'une journèe de prèsentation," Revue d'histoire de l'Eglise de France 84 (1998): 97–103.

2. Tarcisio Bertone, "L'apertura dell'Archivio: Prospettive e progetti," in Giornata di studio: L'apertura degli Archivi del Sant'Uffizio Romano (Roma, 22 gennaio 1998) (Rome: Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, 1998), 98–99.

3. John Tedeschi, "The Dispersed Archives of the Roman Inquisition," in Tedeschi, The Prosecution of Heresy: Collected Studies on the Inquisition in Early Modern Italy (Binghamton, N.Y.: Medieval and Renaissance Texts and Studies, 1991), 23–45.

4. For now, see Cecilia Ferrazzi, Autobiography of an Aspiring Saint, ed. and trans. (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1996), which contains references to my previous articles on Ferrazzi in particular and pretense of sanctity in general.

5. Gigliola Fragnito,La Bibbia al rogo: La censura ecclesiastica e i volgarizzamenti della Scrittura (1471–1605) (Bologna: Il Mulino, 1997). Peter Godman, “Machiavelli, l’Inquisizione e l’Indice,” in Giornata di studio, 47–72. Silvana Seidel Menchi, “La Congregazione dell’Indice,” in ibid., 31–45.

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