The archive occupies a relevant and pre-eminent position among the so-called “cultural heritage”. Today the New Liberian Archive pursues this vision and perspective and it presents itself to scholars from all over the world transformed in appearance such as its rooms, its furnishings, and its organization. After these preliminary remarks, before providing a description of the new archivistic order, it is necessary to summarize, briefly, the historical phases which starting from 1650 have, with increased occurrence, characterized its development.
According to an atavistic tradition the Archive of Saint Mary Major was always integrated in the office of the camerlingo or in the office of the secretary of the Chapter, but around the second half of the 17th century it obtained its own independence and it became an autonomous capitular office within the complex organization chart of services of the Basilica. The considerable increase of documents, which occurred in the last years, made the separation of the archive from every other office indispensable. More specifically, it also created the necessity to entrust the administration of service to an archivist canon normally supported by some coadjutors.
Since then, about eighty archivists had followed. After more than four centuries, one is able to know events and happenings of the past thanks to their work, dedication, and ability.
In 1655, Giovanni Muti was among the first men to leave a tangible sign of the composite historical picture of the existing documents within the Capitular Basilica of Saint Mary Major. He was the author of a rubricella (little rubric), composed by nine booklets, which provides a diligent and detailed analysis concerning the preserved documents. After certain archives were successfully reorganized by illustrious scholars such as Antonio Gentili (1731), Francesco Ascevolini (1764), Giovanni Lercari (1765), Luigi Pericoli established a new archivistic structure between 1861 and 1863.
Between the last quarter of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, more documents began to inundate the different rooms of the archives where enormous quantities were already being kept. These included the papers of the archive of the Sistine Chapel, those of the Pauline College and of the College of the Beneficed Clergy and Clerics, and no less than 120 folders of manuscript scores that made up the Music Chapel.
According to a provision of His Holiness Pope Pius XI made on May 1939, the ancient documental fund of the Liberian Archive dating back until the entire 15th century was transferred to the Vatican Library in order to constitute the “Saint Mary Major Fund”.
After various transfers occurred during the last century, on December 1970 the archive found an ideal location in an apartment placed in the mezzanine floor. Father Jean Coste was authorized by the Archivist Prefect of that time, Monsignor Angelo Martinelli, to reorganize the whole documental fund. Because of his writings, we have a better understanding of the appearance of the rooms. The rooms even having fairly low ceilings still provided an adequate space useful enough to accomplish a planned-out and accurate distribution of documents.
To substitute the high, uncomfortable, worm-eaten, wooden shelves that were deteriorating, as Coste described, a new metal shelving was purchased which fully corresponded to the then modern archivistic criteria. The whole metallic structure, composed by 280 shelves and fixed along the walls of the six different rooms, contained the whole documental fund which was reorganized and catalogued entirely by Coste. It was, practically, the first time that the Liberian fund substituted the old archive rubricelle, with a more updated “Topographic Guide” where the distinctive number of the shelf, the nature of the document, the chronological limits and the respective number of placement were highlighted for each document.
The Topographic Guide, which included a suitable “alphabetic index” of nouns, and aimed to optimize documents’ search, did not include the part of the ancient documental fund (that dated back until the entire 15th century) so it was not in compliance with the previously mentioned provision issued by Pope Pius XI in 1939. After about six years since the documental fund was relocated to the mezzanine floor, more necessities developed that required another change in the archive location. It was transferred to several rooms adjacent to the Hall of Popes, and those rooms would become its final site. Unfortunately, this last archive transfer determined the loss of typographic references of the Guide elaborated by Coste during the previous organization. This atypical changing process lasted until 1993, when finally the Archpriest of the Patriarchal Basilica of that time, Cardinal Ugo Poletti requested that the Archivist Prefect Monsignor Elio Venier proceed with the plans for a new inventory and a definitive cataloguing of the whole documental fund. During the process of inventory and cataloguing of the fund, the Technical Service of the Vatican carried out decisive structural interventions in the rooms which are still in a phase of enlargement today under the direct supervision of the current Prefect of the Archive Monsignor Michele Jagosz. The structural interventions have created suitable spaces respecting both the principles of preservation and documental maintenance, and internal space utilization.