High-quality reproductions of 105 documents, 19 of which have never been seen before in public, have now been published in a book. The Vatican Secret Archives features a papal letter to Hitler, an entreaty to Rome written on birch bark by a tribe of North American Indians, and a plea from Mary Queen of Scots.
The book documents the Roman Catholic Church’s often hostile dealings with the world of science and the arts, including documents from the heresy trial against Galileo and correspondence exchanged with Erasmus, Voltaire and Mozart. It also reveals the Church’s relations with princes and potentates in countries far beyond its dominion.
In a letter dated 1246 from Grand Khan Guyuk to Pope Innocent IV, Genghis Khan’s grandson demands that the pontiff travel to central Asia in person – with all of his “kings” in tow – to “pay service and homage to us” as an act of “submission”, threatening that otherwise “you shall be our enemy”.
Another formal letter in the archive highlights the papacy’s political role. In 1863 Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States, wrote to Pope Pius IX claiming that the civil war raging across America was entirely due to “Northern aggression”.
“We desire no evil to our enemies, nor do we covet any of their possessions; but are only struggling to the end that they shall cease to devastate our land and inflict useless and cruel slaughter upon our people.”
Other letters in the archive are more personal. In a 1550 note, Michelangelo demands payment from the papacy which was three months late, and complains that a papal conclave had interrupted his work on the dome of St Peter’s Basilica.