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Photographic Laboratory


The Photographic Laboratory produces reproductions of the Libraryís manuscripts, publications, artifacts and other objects, using the most suitable techniques, whether for internal use or for external customers (order reproductions). It carries out requests for reproductions approved by the Directors of the various Departments, and manages and updates its own photographic archive. It is made up of a sector which produces reproductions using analog photographic equipment and of a more recent sector which uses digital technology.
The analog sector produces and develops black & white 35 mm microfilms; prints from microfilm; photocopies; 35 mm slides, and Ektachromes in 6x7 cm or 13x18 cm format. The digital sector produces electronic reproductions of singles folios or of entire manuscripts or printed books, and prints them in color or in black & white. There is also the possibility of digital photography with ultraviolet light.
The material thus produced is kept in the analog and digital archives.
The analog sector is particularly occupied with capturing on microfilm the entire manuscript collection, a project which is still in process. The digital sector is especially concerned with achieving a high resolution in the captured files in order to meet the needs of archiving and conservation.


The Analog Laboratory of the Vatican Library currently uses the following equipment:
  • Two planetary microfilm recorders for 35 mm black & white negatives, which have been in constant use since the 1950's.
  • One microfilm recorder for 35 mm black & white negatives.
  • One repro camera for films in 13x18 cm and 20x25 cm formats.
  • One optical bench for 13x18 cm format.
  • One camera for 35 mm format, ane one for 6x7 cm format.
  • One microfilm developer
  • One machine for reproducing 35 mm microfilm on duplicating film from negative to positive and vice versa.
  • One photocopier.

The Digital Laboratory of the Vatican Library currently uses the following equipment:
  • Two digital cameras for reproducing pages from manuscripts and printed books with resolutions of 6 and 12 megapixels, together with various lenses (wide angle 28 mm; macro 60 mm; zoom 18-70 mm).
  • One planetary scanner for reproducing manuscripts. Very high resolution (400 dpi on 50x70 cm format), UV/IR filter, 12-bit color depth during capture, very high detail precision, useful also for prints with very fine or dense strokes, with a pivoting cradle for books, a removable glass plate and an accessory which allows photography of partially opened books (90-180 degrees).
  • Two scanners for reproducing palimpsests, which each produce two identical images of each page, one in RGB and one in UV, at very high resolution (1,200 native dpi).
  • One planetary scanner for black & white reproduction of printed books, hand-written catalogues and inventories, and archival material, with variable dpi (up to a maximum of 600 dpi), with a pivoting cradle and a glass plate.
  • Three desktop scanners for digitalizing microfilms and transparencies (35 mm - A4), and one flat scanner (A3 format) for digitalizing printed books and maps.
  • One 10-megapixel digital camera used chiefly for reproducing coins and medals.
  • One 12-megapixel digital camera for on-site documentation and publishing, with a 24-70 mm zoom and flash.
  • Various photographic printers.

At present we have no automatic ("robotic") scanners of the sort typically used for mass digitalization, since they would not be appropriate for reproducing precious objects.

Next to the reading rooms of the Vatican Library is a room where manuscripts may be studied through reproductions or by using special equipment. Here are found a UV lamp for the study of palimpsests; a watermark reader; microfilm and microfiche readers; and three terminals connected to the archive of digital images, where it is possible to consult 53 catalogues and inventories of manuscripts, as well as about 3,000 entire manuscripts in various formats.

Technical Parameters for Digital Reproductions

The question of the best format for archiving digital images is a constant object of dispute and discussion. For the time being, the Digital Laboratory of the Vatican Library follows the parameters recommended by the main international observatories of best practices in the field of cultural preservation, storing images in uncompressed TIFF format.

The images, with color charts and millimetric rulers, are captured in RAW format (whenever possible), then transformed into TIFF format with 8-bit or 16-bit color depth, depending on the original, and finally stored, together with a color profile and the necessary metadata, in the common server.
However, the maximum resolution of a digital photographic system is not the most important parameter for evaluating its quality; rather, it is the right synergy between sensors, optics and lighting, together with the highest possible resolution, which determines the quality of the photographs. For obvious conservational reasons, we try to use a resolution which is appropriate to the object while still as high as possible, in order to produce master files which will be able to fulfill any future needs and will thus be able to take the place of the originals in scientific study and research.
In choosing a system, the protection of the original documents is paramount. The preference, especially for reproducing manuscripts, goes to systems which include cradles which allow the book to be opened at less than 180 degrees during capture, which do not require direct contact with the object, and which do not require the use of a glass plate.

History of the Photographic Laboratory and of specific projects
1907 - 1920's

Production of photographic reproductions for readers began in 1907. >From then until the end of the 1920's, this service, both for internal and for external use, was entrusted to an outside photographer named Sansaini. Occasionally readers were allowed to make reproductions with their own equipment.


Purchase of the first reproduction equipment, a Jantsch machine for black & white prints on paper.


Later on, thanks to the generosity of Pope Pius XI (1922-1939), the first "Photographic Cabinet" was established and equipped with cameras of various brands; a black & white and color microfilm recorder; a machine for plates and slides in various formats; and a machine called "autoriproduttore" produced by Siemens.
There were also three darkrooms, two of which were used for developing and printing, while the third, called "Scientific Laboratory", was used for innovative experiments involving ultraviolet, infrared and X-ray photography.


A specific microfilming project was undertaken after the Second World War. The material destruction caused by the military operations during the war led Pope Pius XII to create a backup archive of microfilms of the Vatican's manuscripts, across the sea. Thus, at the beginning of the 1950's a microfilming campaign was begun which lasted for a decade, during which approximately 70% of the Vatican manuscripts were reproduced. The Library made these microfilms available for consultation at the Pius XII Memorial Library (also called Vatican Film Library), created for this purpose at Saint Louis University (U.S.A.).


In the following years, up until the introduction of the Digital Laboratory, the equipment for microfilming and for the production of plates seemed adequate and sufficiently up-to-date so that no major innovations were deemed necessary. However, portable 35 mm cameras were purchased, as well as a new reflex camera for 6x7 format, a new optical bench and a large number of more recent photographic accessories.

In the 1970's the optical bench for 18x24 cm negative and slide films was in heaviest use, while today the most used one is the optical bench for the 13x18 cm format. These traditional instruments were used to produce a large quantity of 13x18 Ektachromes for study and publication of manuscripts, as well as many 20x25 Ektachromes for the production (in collaboration with outside companies) of fine facsimiles of manuscripts.

For simple photocopying service, the usual office equipment has been introduced and kept up to date.


Reproduction on microfiches of the entire Palatino collection of printed books.


These years saw the Library's first experiments with digital photography, with the collaboration of IBM and of the Pontifical University of Rio de Janeiro, as well as a digitalization project (mostly in black & white in order to reduce storage requirements) for about 150 entire manuscripts from among the Library's most famous and important pieces. The files were made available, together with catalogue descriptions of the relevant manuscripts, on magnetic-optical disks on a local server.


Gutenberg Bible: cwith the collaboration of a Japanese company, the 1,300 13x18 Ektacrhomes of the Gutenberg Bible were digitalized, using a drum scanner.

After these two experiments, the Library progressively acquired equipment and established its own Digital Laboratory, where digital images are captured for study, publication and archiving. Various procedures are used, depending on the material to be reproduced. At the same time, the equally important work of producing reproductions with traditional instruments has continued.

Since 2002

Digitalization of the microfilms of manuscripts, with the purpose of adding to the analog medium (which remains the main one for archival copies) also the digital medium, which has the advantage of ease of consultation. Currently about 2,700 microfilms of entire manuscripts have been transformed and made available to readers in a local server.

Reproduction in black & white, with a planetary scanner, of printed books, archival material and old catalogues and inventories, for conversion into PDF files which will progressively replace the original manuscript inventories and catalogues in the Reading Room. Currently, 53 catalogues and manuscript inventories, in addition to the printed books and archival materials, have been digitalized in this way.


A recent digitalization project, using a 35-megapixel digital camera back, has allowed the capture of high-resolution images (5,000x7,000 pixels) of four precious Hebrew manuscripts, as well as of one of the Vatican Library's most precious pieces, the Vat. gr. 1209 (known as Codex B). The storage formats chosen for this project are the following: DNG for the negative; TIFF for the photographs; JPEG for the compression. The images of one of the Hebrew manuscripts have also been combined with a special software which allows the user to "page through" them.

For the study of palimpsests with electronic instruments, the Library has undertaken a project to capture electronic images using two high resolution scanners (1,200 dpi). They produce two identical images of the same palimpsest folio, one in RGB and one in UV. After the capture, a specially developed software program allows the two images to be superimposed, processed and integrated in order to isolate and extrapolate the various levels of script. This software, as well as the machines themselves, is constantly evolving as we attempt to adapt its features to the needs expressed by our specialists in the field. At present approximately 1,500 folios have been captured.


Closure of the Laboratory's darkroom: black & white prints are now only produced digitally.

Another digitalization project, using a 400-dpi planetary scanner, has made it possible to capture high-resolution images of the most important folios in the manuscripts from the collection of the Duke of Urbino Federico da Montefeltro, i.e. from the Urbinates shelf-mark series of the Vatican Library. The scannr's beam lighting has made it possible to reproduce perfectly also the gilt portions of the folios.

The most recent electronic photography project undertaken by the Library concerns those manuscripts which, because of their value, age, or state of conservation, have been placed in the Reserve of the Manuscript Stacks. The particular nature of this material has forced us to choose very high-quality equipment which in no way damages the originals. This equipment, which consists of a planetary scanner (which does not touch the original), can capture at 400 or at 600 native dpi for originals up to a maximum format of 50x70 cm, generating a 12,000 by 8,000 pixel image; the original is exposed to the light only at the moment when the sensor passes over it. An electronic pivoting cradle allows fine control of the pressure. A very important option is that which allows work without a glass plate. As an alternative to the pivoting cradle the scanner has an accessory, specially made according to our specifications, which allows work on books which cannot be opened fully, and which also allows for the option of using or omitting the glass plate.

Long-Term Conservation of the Digital Archives

The Digital Photographic Laboratory also has the task of preserving and keeping intact the digital images in a secure location and in reliable structures. At present, the digital archive is made up of more than 139,000 files of various formats such as JPEG, TIFF, DNG and high-resolution PDF. The current standard for storage and conservation is the uncompressed TIFF format.
The archive is the result of many years of data processing and acquisition using equipment which has evolved considerably over the years.
The digital images are stored in a single server with a total capacity of 24 terabytes (about 24,000 gigabytes), divided into one source copy and two backup copies.
The source copy and the first backup are stored on internal hard disks, while the second backup copy is stored on external, removable hard disks. The backups, each with a capacity of 8 terabytes, are produced with a binary copy procedure at small and regular time intervals.
The machine is in the Library's IT Center, in an air-conditioned location with constant temperature and limited access.
The operating system used for the storage equipment is Linux Centos.
The storage server is only available to the computers of the Digital Photographic Laboratory, for storage or recovery of files through a local area network (LAN) with a bandwidth of 1,000 Mbps (Giga Ethernet network).
The internal network is protected by a first level firewall and uses fibre-optic cables and UTP cables of category 5e, 6a and 7.

Analog Photographic Archive

The archive preserves the originals of the analog photographs taken by the Laboratory.

According to the Regulations of the Library, whenever possible, copies are produced for readers from already existing originals.

Holdings of the Photographic Archive:
Over 150,000 photographs, including:
  • 50,000 microfilms made from the Library's manuscripts, reproduced in their entirety;
  • 33,000 color slides of miniatures and 10,000 13x18 slides;
  • 35,000 black & white films in large format;
  • the microfiches of the Palatine Library (over 12,000 printed books) and of the Cicognara Library (over 4,800).
Purposes of the Photographic Archive:
  • preservation of the manuscripts: the use of a photographic copy avoids wear on the original;
  • availability: reproductions offer readers who are unable to come to the library themselves the possibility of studying its collections;
  • documentary: the photographs show the state of the manuscript at the time when they were made; in some cases they show how it appeared before damage or before restoration.
Work is nearing completion a new, air-conditioned deposit with ideal microclimatic conditions for the preservation of the photographic material.
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