Where the Popes Once Lived

With the election of a new pope, world attention has been focused on the Vatican. The pope himself has evidently decided to live, at least for the time being, in a hotel rather than his official residence, which makes the whole story even more interesting.

But did the pope always live in the Vatican? No. Throughout the 1300s, the pope lived in France. His residence was an architectural masterpiece called the Palais des Papas in Avignon, in southern France.

Palais Vieux

Palais Vieux

This massive gothic castle began life as a Dominican monastery in 1252. The first pope to move there was Clement the 5th, who evidently wanted to escape the chaos of Rome. Pope Benedict XII began the construction of the current structure in the 1330s when he hired architect Pierre Poisson to create what is now called Palais Vieux (Old Palace). This is a massive gothic castle centered on a cloister. It has four wings flanked by high towers, and is heavily fortified against attackers.

A decade later a new pope was elected, Clement the 6th, and of course that meant new construction. He hired architect Jean de Louvres to build a new tower and more buildings, including the Grand Chapel. Subsequent popes added more towers and buildings, and had interior sumptuously decorated with frescoes, tapestries, and paintings.

By the time the popes decided Rome was a better place to live, in 1377, the castle in Avignon had over 118,000 square feet of space! It was, and remains, the largest gothic palace in Europe.

In the approximately 750 years since then the castle has had numerous uses, ranging from home to anti-popes (people who say they’re the pope but aren’t really elected to the office) to military barracks for Napoleon.

Today the castle is owned by the French government is a tourist and cultural attraction, visited by about 650,000 people per year. Learn more here.

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