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Vatican Library Enlists Artificial Intelligence to Protect Its Digitized Treasures

The archive employs A.I. modeled on the human immune system to guard offerings including a rare manuscript of the “Aeneid”

The Sistine Hall, originally constructed as part of the Vatican Library (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
smithsonianmag.com

Since 2010, the Vatican Apostolic Library has worked to digitize its sprawling collection of more than 80,000 manuscripts, making a trove of rare historical treasures freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

But the tricky work of uploading the contents of the Roman Catholic Church’s historic library comes with new risks in the digital age. As Harriet Sherwood reports for the Observer, the library recently hired cybersecurity firm Darktrace to defend its digitized vault against attacks that could manipulate, delete or steal parts of the online collection.

Founded by University of Cambridge mathematicians, Darktrace uses artificial intelligence (A.I.) modeled on the human immune system to detect abnormal activity in the Vatican’s digital systems, writes Brian Boucher for artnet News. On average, the A.I. system defends the library against 100 security threats each month, according to a Darktrace statement.

The number of cyber threats faced by the library continues to increase, its chief information officer, Manlio Miceli, tells the Observer. Threats to digital security come in many shapes and sizes, but Miceli notes that criminals can tamper with the library’s digitized files or conduct a ransomware attack, in which hackers effectively hold files ransom in exchange for a hefty sum.

“While physical damage is often clear and immediate, an attack of this kind wouldn’t have the same physical visibility, and so has the potential to cause enduring and potentially irreparable harm, not only to the archive but to the world’s historical memory,” Miceli tells the Observer.

He adds, “These attacks have the potential to impact the Vatican library’s reputation—one it has maintained for hundreds of years—and have significant financial ramifications that could impact our ability to digitize the remaining manuscripts.”

A highly detailed illustration on yellowed, weathered paper depicting a cross section of a funnel-shaped "hell," with each smaller lower level depicting different tortured souls
One of the many rare manuscripts housed in the Vatican Apostolic Library is Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli's 1485 illustration of Dante's nine circles of hell. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Though the Vatican Library dates back to the days of the first Roman Catholic popes, little is known about the contents of its collections prior to the 13th century, per Encyclopedia Britannica. Pope Nicholas V (1447–1455) greatly expanded the collection, and by 1481, the archive held the most books of any institution in the Western world, according to the Library of Congress.

To date, about a quarter of the library’s 80,000 manuscripts have been digitized. As Kabir Jhala reports for the Art Newspaper, holdings include such treasures as Sandro Botticelli’s 15th-century illustrations of the Divine Comedy and the Codex Vaticanus, one of the earliest known copies of the Bible. Other collection highlights include notes and sketches by Michelangelo and the writings of Galileo.

The Vatican debuted the digitized version of its prized Vergilius Vaticanus in 2016. One of the few remaining illustrated manuscripts of classic literature, the fragmented text features Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic poem detailing the travels of a Trojan named Aeneas and the foundation of Rome. The ancient document—likely crafted around 400 A.D. by a single master scribe and three painters—still bears its vivid original illustrations and gilded lettering.

The library isn’t the only section of the Vatican that’s prone to cyber breaches. As the New York Times reported in July, Chinese hackers infiltrated the Holy See’s computer networks this summer ahead of sensitive talks in Beijing over the appointment of bishops—part of ongoing discussions that will determine how the Catholic Church operates in China.

“The only way to make an organization completely secure is to cut it off from the internet,” Miceli tells the Observer. “Our mission is to bring the Vatican Library into the 21st century—so we won’t be doing that any time soon.”

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