Sunday, 25 May 2014

47. Wonder: Avignon Papal Palace

(For the Palace of the Popes preview, please click here.)

"The most beautiful and strongest house in the world". So said the 14th Century French poet and historian, Jean Froissart. But things change a lot over the centuries. When Froissart was writing, the Papal Palace in Avignon was a snapshot of its time, being the new centre of Western Christendom, in essence the new Rome. Its thick sandstone walls, built upon a craggy bed of limestone, made it a fortress: the Catholic Church has had its fair share of enemies over the years. The wealth and luxuries within allowed the pope to live like a king. 500 years later, a 19th Century visitor would have seen something quite different: an empty, gutted shell barely fit for a prisoner, well past its used-by-date. But in that regard it continued as a suitable snapshot: back then, the majority of France's grand old monuments were in shabby shape, suffering the degradations of time and willful abuse. What of today's snapshot, therefore?

You don't need to be a pope or a prisoner to find out - these days 11 will do the job. Sitting at the heart of Avignon, surrounded by 4.3 kilometres of walls and tucked into a bend in the Rhone, for several decades the Palace of the Popes really was a palace of the popes. A series of grand halls, courtyards, and beefy towers, today the rooms are bare but well-kept and carefully laid-out with details, some audio-visual, some original artefacts, for visitors to look at. Occasional glimpses of beauty can be found, with a little imagination. The overwhelming impression though is of austerity, strength, and age. But it wasn't always this way.

The Papal Palace was never really meant to be. It was a home for popes (and a couple of the delightfully-termed anti-popes) in a world where the popes already had a home - Rome. But in 1309, Rome wasn't a very friendly place to be in, and Pope Clement V, a Frenchman, had been too afraid to go there. He found himself in Avignon, a considerably safer haven. Nothing worked out very well for poor Clement V. Sick from the beginning of his reign, he was a peacemaker surrounded by violent men in violent times and a puppet of the French king, who had weaved his powers to get him elected in the first place. Even his coronation had gone badly - a wall had collapsed as his procession had passed, killing onlookers and some of the king's entourage, and knocking Clement to the ground and the ruby out of his tiara. In the general melee, nobody thought to hand it back. He intended to return the papacy to Rome, but in his nine year reign he never once set foot in there. Avigon was a good choice though, being politically and geographically pretty safe, but it was only ever supposed to be a short-term measure. The Papal Palace did not yet exist - Clement lived in the Dominican monastery as a guest, until his death in 1314, said to have been due to eating ground emeralds prescribed to alleviate his stomach pain.

For two years after him there was no pope - nobody could agree on who to elect. Eventually another Frenchman was - John XXII. A veritable geriatric for his time, in his 70s, he was only expected to be short-term while a better solution was reached - but he ended up living another 18 years. Under him, Avignon's population exploded, and the papal treasury became wealthy. He still didn't regard Avignon as permanent - a return to Rome was hoped for - but he built up a fortified palace during his reign. That palace was promptly knocked down by his successor.

Reigning just seven years, Benedict XII didn't hang about. Realising the papacy was here to stay in Avignon, he set to construction at an intense rate. The Papal Palace we know was first started in 1335, roughly based upon the ground plan of John XXII's old palace, and right next to Avignon Cathedral, so he didn't have long to walk in the mornings. By the standards of the day, the palace shot up virtually overnight - more than a century was not at all uncommon for grand buildings back then.

You can still visit Benedict's building. It's the part of the palace now called the Old Palace, being slightly more utilitarian than the only-very-slightly-newer New Palace, which was added on by his successor, Clement VI. By the time Clement VI had finished with it, the Papal Palace was decked out in luxury, a riot of fine colours of frescoes and materials and furnishings, sometimes at the cost of the palace's defensive function. Windows, for example, were made more frequent and wider than was strictly necessary, because high-living popes liked a bit of light, and towers were built square because they looked better, even though round towers are more secure. But that didn't matter. Because this was the residence of the number one man of Western Christianity - and it was built to impress.

And it still impresses, assuming you like heavy stone fortifications with Gothic embellishments. Sadly, much of the finer efforts of Benedict XII and Clement VI are long gone. This point is quickly hammered home upon entering. When you enter the Papal Palace by the main entrance, the Porte des Champeaux, flanked by its characteristic dinky twin towers, pay your money, and cross the main courtyard, the Cours d'Honneur, which roughly divides the Old and New Palaces, you find yourself in the Consistory. This is the first room typically entered if you're following the advised route (you don't have to, but I'm sure I saw a room attendant ticking off a Japanese fellow for going entering via an exit stairway). It was kind of like a reception room, and would have received kings back in its day. It looks like this, except much less blurry. Just imagine you're drunk.

Except for a few exhibits, pretty bare. Once, it would have been lavish - but not for very long, as a fire in 1413 wrecked it. The Grand Tinel has a similar tale. A huge room, 50 metres long, it once was the scene of banquets, where the likes of Clement VI would have entertained scores of prestigious guests. But in 1413 it was burnt down. A room once covered in frescoes, with a roof decorated in gold stars, was gutted and never recovered, to the extent that it was named the Burnt Room for many years after. The handsome but bare wooden roof we see today dates from 1980.

These are some of the more dramatic moments from the Palace of the Pope's history, but in truth its time as Froissart's most beautiful house in the world was always marked. After Clement VI, there were three more Avignon popes, who made their own tweaks and adjustments to the Palace, but by the seventh Pope of Avignon and the fifth one to live in the Palace, Gregory XI, it was time to go back to Rome. Conditions had changed, and the true home of the Church beckoned. Avignon's day in the sun was over...

...almost. If you count the number of pope portraits above, you'll see there are nine, not seven. Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377 and died the following year. Avignon still had a lot of power and influence, and was still a lot more luxurious than the decrepit ruin that was Rome. A lot of French cardinals much preferred the comfort of Avignon, so it would have been the sensible thing to do to elect a new pope who wasn't a paranoid maniac who enjoyed torturing cardinals. Well, oops. Urban VI, the first Italian pope since Avignon, was not that man; he was, to put it succinctly, a total dick. The French cardinals were having none of it and returned to Avignon, electing their own guy, a Frenchman. So began the reign of the Great Schism, and two different "anti-popes" as we call them, over the next 40 years. Both anti-popes, Clement VII and Benedict XIII, used the Papal Palace as their home, with anti-Benedict XIII (as I'll call him) finally getting to put the fortress part to the test when besieged by the French (who'd by then gone off the idea of an anti-pope) and papal forces. It held up pretty damn well. It was too tough to be stormed, and although food supplies were cut off, anti-Benedict XIII was able to live on party food - resources of dried food for parties were vast. This went on for a year, with anti-Benedict at one point vowing not to shave his beard until he was allowed to go free. In 1403, he managed to escape and it was bye-bye to Avignon as he spent the rest of his bizarro world rule on the run, finally dying at the ripe old age of 94 in 1423.

For centuries, vice-legate and legates lived in the Palace - if you don't know what they are, I don't blame you. The audio tour of the Papal Palace is one of the good ones, giving a clear and interesting account of the building and its history and bringing to life what often is a series of bare rooms. But it doesn't quite avoid the common pitfall of getting a little carried away and assuming that the listener is highly knowledgeable of both historical and in this case papal affairs. Well, Wikipedia informs me that a legate is the pope's representative to foreign nations, and a vice-legate is merely a smaller form, and hand-in-hand they lived at the Palace, making various tweaks and adjustments although not preventing an overall deterioration in latter years, right up until the French Revolution in the late 18th Century. Things went seriously downhill from here, as Revolutionaries took over. A project was approved for the actual demolition of the palace - but they couldn't do it! It was just too solid and big for them to dismantle. All they could do was trash the place, ripping out doors and windows and anything that looked nice. Napoleon took over, using it as a barracks and a prison, which caused even more damage, with soldiers breaking heads off statues to sell, and frescoes destroyed. By the start of the 20th Century, the once glorious Papal Palace looked like this,

That's an unrestored room, the only one remaining. It's a scabby mess, although interesting for it. In 1906, the Palace was turned into a national museum and restoration begun, still going on today. It might be bare and empty but it's in pretty good order now. Happily, it's not just a museum to itself, it also is actively used - seating is put up the Cours D'Honneur for shows and performances, especially during Avignon's annual arts festival, and other parts are set up for regular conventions and meetings.

And even better, not all of the frescoes and paintings were lost. Some rooms still have some remaining, giving glimpses of how gorgeous the entire palace must have looked. St John's Chapel is lovely with its frescoes, as is the Stag Room, with its scenes of hunting (a refreshing change from all the usual religious stuff).

Unusually, my two official visits of the Palace of the Popes spanned almost two years. I first visited in the summer of 2012 during the holiday dubbed Francefest 2012. Unintentionally, we'd timed our visit to Avignon during the festival and on a day when the temperatures soared to something like 37C. After hours of driving, nobody was really in the mood for Avignon and its busy festival streets, or its Papal Palace. Danielle and I did our duties and trekked around it for an hour, and then walked around the outside, but it's fair to say that the visiting conditions weren't ideal. We didn't do the audio tour, and the palace just seemed like a whole bunch of grand old empty rooms. The highlight was climbing the Tour D'Angle (the Corner Tower) and admiring the view.

This time, our visit to Avignon studiously avoided the festival, and the temperatures were sensible. It was possible to admire the Palace's main facade, with its distinctive twin towers (both 20th Century full restorations), from the main square without hordes of people and clothes soaked in sweat. We both agreed, we liked it a lot more.

Taking the audio tour helps a lot too. I find audio tours a very hit-and-miss affair, but this one is a hit. It guides you through the many rooms and halls, making them something more than just bare and austere. The information boards help too. The Papal Palace takes a little time to appreciate but some effort is rewarded, because it's a building with a fascinating history, mostly condensed into one short period in the 14th Century.

Still, no doubt, the inside is a bare spectacle overall: compared to the giants of interior decor like Versailles or the (non Wonder listed) Mezquita of Cordoba, it's not too exciting. The history is great, but on a purely aesthetic level, it's too empty to leave any powerful impressions: you can see big empty stone rooms in a lot of places. It's the exterior that you need to look to get your kicks. From the outside, the Papal Palace successfully conveys a fair whack of heft. It's a solid-looking, imposing structure. The main facade is handsome. The layout of the overall palace, Old and New, is an odd one, like two irregular trapezoids tacked onto each other... here's a model....

It also has parts built straight onto the natural rock. I'm always a big fan of this.

Still, there's no escaping that however handsome and bulky, the Papal Palace is just a bulked up version of lots of fortresses, albeit with a great history and a few little flourishes. It takes up a fairly big area - over 2½ acres - but so do most fortresses. The Alhambra takes up 35 acres, for example, and is still full of exquisite art and detail. It's highest tower is 52 metres, which is a sensible height for a tower to be, but not the double extra helping I expect from the best Wonders. There are grander fortresses out there, in other words, and more exquisite palaces too. I really grew to like the Papal Palace during my few days in Avignon, it's a terrific feature and centrepiece of the city, and a hugely interesting story. But in the end, the popes returning to Rome were right - the true pomp and glory lies elsewhere.

Criteria then.

Size: 2½ acres, 52 metres at its tallest, the Palace is certainly large, but never the largest of its kind.
Engineering: The most impressive aspect is the speed it was put up, and that it held up well over the centuries despite fires and deliberate efforts to destroy it.
Artistry: In its day, it would have been a lot more lavish. What we see now is more about bulk and mass, although it conveys a handsome facade.
Age: Almost 700 years old, it's around the same age as France's many Gothic cathedrals.
Fame/Iconicity: I don't think it's much known about outside of France, or fans of Catholic history.
Context: It's a perfect fit for Avignon, neither dominating the old part of the city, or being swamped by it. A square allows a view of its best side.
Back Story: A great tale of when the popes left Rome in the 14th Century.
Originality: It's a weird kind of fortress and a weird kind of palace, so while it's not exactly trying to be anything new, its irrregular layout means that there's nothing else out there than you could say it really resembles.
Wow Factor: It's not beautiful or big enough to make grown men gasp, it's more a structure you grow fond of.

I really like the Palace of the Popes. It may have been built for pomp and grandeur but it's lost all that now, and it's become a more unassuming and likeable building for that. But there are lots of buildings that I like, for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with Wonderment (or whatever the term is). The Papal Palace isn't spectacular enough in terms of size or looks to rank anywhere near the world's best; instead it's just a handsome, slightly unusual building with a great history. I'd place it just below the more sprawling, more imposing, more boring Forbidden City, but above the entirely unassuming Thiepval Memorial.

The Seven Wonders of the World So Far
1. Taj Mahal
2. Great Wall of China
3. Machu Picchu
4. Easter Island
5. Mont Saint-Michel
6. The Eiffel Tower
. The Millau Viaduct

Other Wonders
Angkor Wat
Hagia Sophia
Sydney Opera House

Chartres Cathedral
The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben
The Alhambra
St Paul's Cathedral
Notre-Dame de Paris
The Parthenon
Cristo Redentor
The Palace of Versailles
The Blue Mosque
Petronas Towers

Notable Landmarks (or National Wonders)
The Golden Temple
Amiens Cathedral
Edinburgh Castle Shwedagon Pagoda
Forbidden City
Avignon Papal Palace
Thiepval Memorial
Tower Bridge
Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha
Banaue Rice Terraces
Temple of the Emerald Buddha

Interesting Places
The Sacre-Coeur
Terracotta Army
Leshan Giant Buddha
Marina Bay Sands

Nazca Lines
Agra Fort
Ayutthaya Historic Park
City of Arts and Sciences
Lotus Temple
Three Gorges Dam

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