Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Preview: Avignon Papal Palace

At the start of the 14th Century, Avignon, nestled in the south of France, had a population of less than 5000 people. That's about the same size as my home town, Dingwall, nestled in the Highlands of Scotland. Life in modern-day Dingwall, though with its occasional flashes of excitement (our football team got promoted to the Scottish Premier League last year, and Prince Charles once visited), is generally pretty sedentary, based around a quiet High Street and a less-quiet giant Tesco sitting not far off it. Visitors might be impressed with the attractive setting at the end of the Cromarty Firth, beneath the 3432-foot Ben Wyvis, but in no way will they leave feeling they have visited one of the world's great talking points. Avignon, though scenically different, would have inspired the same feeling. But whereas Dingwall, unless great things are in the pipeline (I've been suggesting it as a Grand Prix circuit for years), looks likely to continue in its unassuming manner, different things were in store for Avignon at the start of the 14th Century. Because within a few decades it had become bigger than Rome, was fabulously wealthy and a major centre of Christendom, and had a series of popes living in its huge new fortified palace - the Palace of the Popes.

From 1309 to 1376, Avignon was the home of seven popes. A pre-Roman settlement that flourished during Roman times, the town changed hands a number of times in the Middle Ages by the time the 14th Century arrived. At that point its ownership was pretty muddled: it was in France but didn't belong to France, it was self-governing but the surrounding area belonged to the papacy (the only such area outwith of Italy), and it was owned by the count of Provence who was the king of Sicily (who didn't actually rule the island of Sicily) as well as being the uncle of the French king - and who was under the authority of the pope anyway. The political situation was no less confused in Italy when in 1308, a Frenchman called Bertrand de Got, to his great surprise (he wasn't even a cardinal and hadn't expressed interest in the position) was appointed pope - Pope Clement V. Rome was in chaos and his predecessor had spent his time in exile, with the king of France exerting undue influence. To head into Rome, or even Italy, would be suicide, but Clement V couldn't side too overtly with France. Avignon therefore seemed the perfect place to set up shop.

It was only intended as a short-term measure, and Clement simply lived in the local monastery. He died in 1314, and another Frenchman was made pope - Pope John XXII. John brought in the good times for Avignon - the population went up fivefold, the money rolled in, and his cardinals became fat-bellied gluttons. By the end of his reign, John XXII's court cost ten times the French royal court. Good times - unless you were considered a heretic, which was pretty much anyone who disagreed with him. One man, who conspired to kill him by sorcery, was skinned alive and roasted over a slow fire. This was not one of Catholicism's more forgiving phases.

Although John XXII oversaw Avignon turn into a financial and political power, there was still a sense of impermanency about it as the centre of the Catholic world - one day the pope would return to Rome was the continuing sentiment. As such, John lived in an old bishop's palace. It was his successor, Benedict XII, that sought to change this. He took power in 1334 and immediately tore down the bishop's palace and set to work on building a brand new one, the Palace of the Popes. This was a sign that Avignon was a new centre of the Christian world, and was here to stay.

Tellingly too, it was built as a fortress: being a pope was not a safe career choice in 14th Century Europe. Benedict likely felt the need for a bit of security in light of his predecessor, John XXII, excommunicating the Holy Roman Emperor, Louis of Bavaria, for accusing him of being a heretic. His remit was simple - build the palace strong, and build it quick. Eight hundred labourers gathered, sandstone acquired from a nearby ridge and ferried across on barges, stone quarried, and wood from neighbouring oak forests collected: construction began about a year after Benedict was elected. The first architect, possibly moonlighting as a French cartoon character, was called Pierre Poisson, but perhaps not being up to the pace of the job he was replaced by another, called Bernard Chapelle. Most substantial medieval buildings took decades back then, but Avignon's Palace of the Popes appeared astonishingly fast, being largely completed within the seven years of Benedict XII's reign. This is the core of what we see now, the Old Palace, architecturally somewhere between a monastery and a fortress.

Benedict XII built the Palace of the Popes for strength and security; his successors wanted comfort. Principally, Benedict's immediate successor, Clement VI wanted to turn the fortress into a mansion of luxury. He was a high roller, styling his court on an opulent royal court, filled with musicians and entertainers, parades and banquets and ceremonies, and his New Palace reflected his brighter style of of rule. Though the fortifications remained, his palace was much grander and brighter, with a spacious courtyard created, called the "Courtyard of Honour", between the Old and New Palaces. The huge Great Audience Hall, considered a supreme masterpiece of early Gothic architecture, was constructed. The main facade we see now, with the two towers of Champeaux Gate was also constructed.

Clement VI raced through the papal financial reserves and under him the Papal Palace had the air of a hedonistic secular capital rather than the celibate capital of Christendom. Rumours - never confirmed or substantiated - abounded of prostitutes and orgies in the papal bed. And then - it stopped.

The Black Death hit Avignon in January 1348, and in total up to three-quarters of the population of the city and surrounding area were dead by the end of the year. It was devastation. Many obviously thought this was a judgement from God on the immoral state of His representatives, and a strong anti-Church sentiment arose in the aftermath. Party time was, obviously, over. Clement VI had three Avignon-based successors, who continued to add to and develop to the Palace of the Popes, but the celebrations were over. And two further outbreaks during the Avignon papacy – in 1361 and 1368, killing 10-20% of the population each time - proved a suitable reminder that God did not see fun returning to the agenda.

It would be unfair to blame just the Black Death on the eventual return to Rome by the papal court, as there were all kinds of political changes occurring in Italy, not to mention the general sense that Rome was where it ultimately belonged. And Avignon was hardly the only place affected by the Black Death. But like a stomach punch to an athlete just getting into his stride, it was a blow that it couldn't really recover from. In October 1376, the seventh pope of Avignon, Gregory XI, left Avignon for Rome with his court, and Avignon's moment in the sun was over. Although it was the centre of disputes for years later, and continued to be owned by the Vatican for another 400 years, its decline had begun. The Palace of the Popes was still in use, but lack of maintenance saw its slow decay. The French Revolution at the end of the 18th Century didn't help - it was at first scheduled for demolition, but proved too big and solid to dismantle, so soldiers just trashed the place instead. It was subsequently used as a prison, a barracks, and even a stables. Only in 1906 did France get its act together and turn it into a national museum, and begin the long process of restoration.

These days, the appeal of Avignon Papal Palace is all about the building itself - big, strong, and bare. The loss of the papal court, not to mention the Revolution, mostly stripped the palace of its lavish interior. A monument to its former glory and to a remarkable period in the Catholic Church's history, the Palace of Pope impresses now with its sheer bulk and imposing Gothic architecture. It is at the heart of Avignon, now a city of 100,000, and centuries on, though it may have lost its religious authority, it still assumes a commanding position within the city.

One last thing. When Avignon's first pope, Clement V, first arrived in Avignon, he selected a spot nearby and set about planting vines. His successor, John XXII, built a castle amidst these vineyards - called Chateauneuf de Pape - a name still very familiar indeed with wine drinkers. The Chateauneuf de Pape wine available at our nearest Tesco is a direct legacy of the popes 70 year stay in Avignon.

I'll be visiting the Palace of the Popes in Avignon later this year on July 19th and 20th, and will give a fuller account of it and its history then. You can bet I'll be drinking the wine.


  1. Wow, that's really interesting. And I hadn't quite appreciated how big and bold and beautiful the palace was. There is quite a noticeable Moorish/Arab look to the building, certainly from the second picture, which isn't quite what you'd expect from French or Roman Catholic styles. It looks quite unecclesiastical.

  2. Thanks. The Moorish look is chance, I think, but the big and bold look isn't - it was built for defence, and to repel invasions, and indeed successfully held during a five year siege following the popes' exit. Considering some cathedrals took centuries to build back then, it's astonishing the Palace took just a generation - but I guess that's reflected in the functional chunkiness rather than the ornate and delicate touches of medieval cathedrals.

  3. That's a point. I suppose most cathedrals and places like the Vatican would have been built at the heart of countries and therefore places at low risk of attack - hence taking their time over building.


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