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Pope Alexander VIII and the Vatican Library

Gregory DiPippo

On this day in the year 1691, Pope Alexander VIII died after reigning for just under 16 months. Despite the brevity of his Papacy, he made a lasting and very important contribution to the field of Classical studies.

During the Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), the armies of Sweden under King Gustavus II Adolfus had invaded the Holy Roman Empire in 1630 in support of the Protestant cause. In the course of their campaign, they looted an enormous number of books and manuscripts from various libraries, including those of the bishop of Würzburg and the University of Olomuc, as well as the royal library of the kings of Bohemia in Prague. The king himself was killed in battle in 1632, and succeeded by his daughter Christina, then six years of age; after twelve years of regency, she began to rule in her own right on reaching her majority, although she was not formally crowned until 1650. Throughout her reign, she was a generous patron of the arts and sciences, and took a personal scholarly interest in many different fields.

However, four years after her coronation, she decided to convert to Catholicism, and was thus constrained to abdicate the throne of the confessionally Lutheran Swedish kingdom in favor of her cousin. During the months leading up to her abdication ceremony, she had most of the contents of the royal castle in Stockholm shipped to Antwerp, including a large portion of the then newly-acquired library. After leaving Sweden, she spent a year and a half in Holland, then traveled to Rome, arriving at the very end of 1655, and bringing the library with her.

Christina lived most of the rest of her life in Rome, and died in April of 1689; she is one of only three female monarchs accorded the honor of burial in St Peter’s Basilica. Four months later, Pope Bl. Innocent XI died, and was succeeded by Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni, who took the name Alexander VIII. Within a year, the new Pope purchased most of the Queen’s books, including over 2,100 manuscripts in Latin, and about 190 in Greek, and brought them to the Vatican Library, where they remain today. The collection contains many of the great works of classical literature, and (to name just one of its many other treasures) the oldest sacramentary of the Roman Rite (ca. 700 A.D.), the ancient predecessor of the missal. As a group, these are still known to this day as the Reginensis collection, from the Latin word “regina – queen.”

As an aside, the castle in Stockholm was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1697; had Queen Christina not absconded with the royal library more than forty years earlier, most of its contents would certainly have been destroyed along with it.

(Pictured below, the monument of Queen Christina in St Peter’s Basilica; image from Wikimedia Commons by Alma Pater, CC BY-SA 3.0

Second image:  Folios 131v and 132r of the Gelasian Sacramentary, ms. Vat. Reginensis 316; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

It was a common practice of that era for the Pope to appoint one of his nephews to the cardinalate, to help his uncle as a sort of general factotum; so common, in fact, that the position was simply referred to as that of “the cardinal nephew”. The word “nepotism”, from the Latin word “nepos – nephew”, came into English partly in reference to this practice, which was officially abolished in 1692 by Alexander’s successor. Shortly after his election, Pope Alexander gave this position to a nephew who shared his baptismal name, Pietro, and who would outlive his uncle’s brief Papacy by almost 50 years.

Like Queen Christina, Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni was also a generous patrons of the arts; among his proteges are counted three of the era’s greatest musicians, Arcangelo Corelli, Alessandro Scarlatti, and Antonio Vivaldi. He was also a great book collector, and in fact, some of the items from Queen Christina’s library that had not gone to the Vatican in 1690 had come to him. He died in 1740, and eight years later, Pope Benedict XIV, acquired his collection of almost 550 Latin manuscripts and 380 Greek ones, and added it that of the Vatican Library, where is it still referred to as the Ottoboni collection.

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of Pope Alexander and his nephew (among many others, of course), scholars today have access to thousands of ancient manuscripts in Latin and Greek in the collections of the Vatican Library.

(Pictured below: a portrait of Card. Pietro Ottoboni, by Francesco Trevisani, ca. 1689; public domain image from Wikimedia Commons.)

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