When our TGV to the south approached Avignon on June 12, my first sight of the Palace of the Popes caught my breath. I had last seen the structure in 1994 from a train in the middle of the night, but with my brother Tom in town, I would finally get my chance to see the Palace up close. He and I had already invested a morning wandering around the Roman theatre at Orange, so we paused for an ice cream lunch in the Place du Palais.
What an impression that square creates in a visitor’s mind! The builders of the fortress knew how to project power. If I could start the story at the end, though, I think it’s really interesting that the Place du Palais itself was created in 1398 by Rodrigo de Luna. He was no architect; he was the military commander under (and nephew of) anti-Pope Benedict XIII, and he destroyed the buildings before the Palace to make its entrance easier to defend from a siege of French mercenaries. The plaza is ground zero for tourists in Avignon, so I was grateful for some elbow room!
But I am getting ahead of myself. Why did the pope decide to move his court to Avignon from the Vatican? Several reasons seem to have been in play, many of which relate to French King Philippe IV “le Bel”. King Philippe levied a tax against French clergymen, and Pope Boniface VIII wrote a bull proclaiming that all kings were below the Pope’s authority and excommunicated King Philippe. French thugs conspired with northern Italians to capture Boniface VIII at Anagni in 1303, to treat him quite roughly, and to pillage his treasury; the Pope died a month later, making it clear that Italy was not a safe refuge. King Philippe needed money for his wars and decided to smear the Templars so he could appropriate their wealth; his desire for an accommodating Pope caused French cardinals to forestall any but a French candidate for the papacy.
Avignon Popes and Palaces
I rather like the caricature shorthand for the seven Avignon Popes that Edwin Mullins included in his book: “Puppet, Miser, Monk, Emperor, Bookkeeper, Saint, and Humanist.” I know that serious scholars of the medieval would scoff at its rigor, but the book is at least memorable!
“Puppet” Clement V: The Archbishop of Bordeaux was chosen to become Pope Clement V even though he wasn’t a cardinal. As was characteristic of the Avignon Popes, he was trained in canon and civil law, heralding a period when the papacy would have more powerful administration than before. Immediately upon his election, however, Clement V must have realized that his independence as pope was pretty limited, since King Philippe compelled him to be coronated in 1305 on French soil at Lyon. After a stint at Poitiers, the papal court came to Avignon to take advantage of its being in papal lands of Provence, an area that was not integrated into France until the French Revolution. At the start of the 14th century, Avignon was essentially a village, certainly without grand housing for wealthy cardinals, but the court of Clement V “made do” without a palace; he frequently visited the countryside rather than creating a stately residence in Avignon itself.
So did Clement V manage to achieve any independence? He attempted to deflect King Philippe’s efforts to take Templar property and execute the knights (for example by making it a church trial rather than a royal one), but ultimately he could not stop the king from burning the Templar leaders at the stake. True, the Avignon Papacy was not in France proper, but the fact that the papal court was just across the river from France gave King Philippe greater international prestige. A great storm was building on the horizon, though. It was clear even before the reign of Edward III that England and France were on a collision course, so being closer to France gave the Pope more opportunity to intervene in the Hundred Years’ War.
“Miser” John XXII: The second Avignon Pope put the church on a sound financial footing during a time of significant growth for Avignon. Cardinals built two early structures in the city during his reign: the “Petit Palace” (1318-1320) which now houses an art museum and the “Livrée Ceccano” (begun before 1331) which now houses the municipal city library. I wish I had known enough before our visit to see the two!
One of the factors I found most intriguing about John XXII was that he became something of a bête noire to William of Ockham (who popularized parsimony in his philosophical writings). John XXII is also notable for having canonized St. Thomas Aquinas.
“Monk” Benedict XII: As a Cistercian monk, Jacques Fournier served as an Inquisitor who burned the last of the Cathars in southwestern France. It is this austere pope who first constructed a monumental palace at Avignon, today labeled the “Palais Vieux.” Mullins describes this structure as a “bastion” or “fortress,” but its purpose was to house church business, bringing the archives from Italy, treasury, and administrators under one roof. The old fortress receives considerably less attention than the new on the Palace tours, but my brother Tom and I did shoot a little video in its courtyard to explain the Popes’ move to Avignon for his students.
As we move forward with the most imperial of popes, I think it is worth saying that the most influential of writers from this period were mad as hell at what they saw the Papal Court becoming in Avignon. I would refer you to Petrarch and Dante…
“Emperor” Clement VI: Ruling during 1342-1352 CE, Clement VI gets the lion’s share of the glory for the Avignon Popes. The monies that John XXII had brought to the treasury were spent heavily by Clement for his “Palais Neuf,” which transformed the structure from an forbidding keep to a resplendent mansion and a grand church in its own right. He also added substantial gardens to the back of the complex.
Clement VI brought parades to the streets of Avignon and majestic receptions for visiting royalty. Italian banks opened major centers in the city, today remembered by a bas relief on the opposite side of the Place du Palais. Clement also made a key appointment in launching a military effort under Cardinal Gil Alvarez Carrillo de Albornoz to repacify the Papal States of Italy.
Clement VI’s term as Pope would seem a great success except for a little public health problem called the “peste noire;” the Black Death had come to France. A Genoese ship sailing from the Crimea brought rats to Messina in 1347 CE. Those rats were infested with fleas, and the fleas were infected with Yersinia pestis. Two to eight days after an infected fleabite, a victim’s lymph nodes would swell to the size of chicken eggs before he or she died. This, the first appearance of this plague in Europe, killed an astonishing number of people throughout the continent, striking down as much as half the population of cities. Naturally, the people of Avignon wondered if the sumptuous living on display at the palace was being answered by a sign of disapproval from God…
Walking around the Palais Neuf of Clement VI, the luxury of his life is apparent even if many of the hand-painted room interiors have been lost through aging, chipped away by soldiers who used the structure for a barracks, or otherwise defaced. The path through the palace is quite a maze, really. Rather than having a single linear progression through all the rooms, a tourist makes lots of choices along the way. Do you want to see the gardens? The treasury? The kitchens? All of these are spurs to the main tour.
For me, the highlight is the Chambre du Pape, or the Pope’s bedroom. Vexingly, photographs are disallowed inside painted rooms (both walls and ceilings) such as this one. Yes, even if your camera doesn’t have a flash. Yes, even if it’s just your cell phone. Happily, I was able to find some archival images over at the French Ministry of Culture. I loved the theme of an indoor forest for the Pope’s bedroom, and the little birds that one can find in each curl of branches are charming. I had less love for the Chambre du Cerf, the Pope’s private study next to his bedroom. The hunting and fishing scenes tell us of the love for these sports among the nobility of the fourteenth century, but they have been marred by the ravages of time.
The palace has two small frescoed chapels and a gargantuan nave for large-scale masses. The smaller chapels are right on top of each other in the aptly named “Tour des Chapelles.” Chapelle Saint-Jean celebrates two eponymous saints (John the Baptist is a different person than John the Evangelist). The Chapelle Saint-Martial celebrates one of the first bishops in France, active around the year 250 CE. Matteo Giovannetti crafted lovely frescoes of his life for this chapel in 1344-1345, and he completed the set for Saint-Jean during 1346-1348. I didn’t really feel that we got a good look at these works during our tour, since one cannot really linger inside the chapel (and one of them was closed off from visits).
The Grande Chapelle is on a completely different scale from the smaller chapels. Very few of its original frescoes remain in place, but its vaults are still beautiful. In the 19th century, the nave served as a storage depot for government archives. The stairway leading down from the chapel has a magnificent look onto the courtyard below, effectively the space enclosed between the old and new palaces. The area had temporary construction underway to erect banks of seats for a concert or recital. I wonder how echoey those walls will be!
I really enjoyed our visit to the Palace, though I did feel that the building has a great emptiness to it. Relatively few spaces have exhibits in place, and there’s no period furniture to help us imagine how these rooms would function. The tablet audioguides that they issued us at the entrance, however, were pretty cool in that they could show us animations of some rooms superimposed over the walls and floors we were navigating. I liked their little historical vignettes, too.
“Bookkeeper” Innocent VI: As a former professor of law, Innocent VI was known for his prudence and sobriety. The ongoing party that Clement VI had started had come to an end, the papal coffers emptied of their gold. Despite the new austerity, Innocent kept the pressure on the Papal States of Italy by funding Cardinal Albornoz’s military campaign there. In some cases, it was possible to turn warlords’ loyalties by bribes more inexpensively than by military action.
A temporary lull in the Hundred Years’ War meant that many unemployed men were lingering with sharp weapons. A substantial army of these “routiers” came to Avignon under Arnaud de Cervole. Innocent paid the routier forces a substantial fee to abandon the castles they had occupied in papal lands. When the “Free Companies” came to Avignon under Albert Sterz, Innocent used a slightly different strategy, taking some of the forces in employ for winning back control of the Papal States in Italy. Naturally, establishing better walls around the city gained priority.
“Saint” Urban V: Under the penultimate Avignon Pope, the moribund effort to return to the Vatican seemed to have been underway once more. The former Benedictine abbott expanded the palace gardens further and continued the city wall project, but his heart was set on returning to Rome. Cardinal Albornoz’s efforts had finally stabilized Italy enough that the papal court could return.
On October 16, 1367 CE, the returned papal court was received rapturously by the city of Rome. A representative of the Eastern Orthodox faith was there to discuss a future where the two branches of Christianity could re-unify [If you are sensitive to naughty language, don’t click that link]. The problem, however, was that the Eastern church needed military forces to accomplish that. The two largest military powers in Western Europe, England and France, were not willing to send armies east while they were busy killing each other wholesale in France. On September 24, 1370, Urban re-entered Avignon with his court. The Hundred Years’ War was raging once again, and now the Papal Treasury was empty from the expensive moves between cities. Urban died on December 19, 1370, not even three months after returning to Avignon.
“Humanist” Gregory XI: It could not have hurt his prospects that Gregory XI was the nephew of “Good Times” Clement VI. As yet another civil and canon lawyer, he had familiar training to that of the previous Avignon Popes. Although he had inherited Urban’s sense that returning to Rome was the proper course, his French cardinals were much happier to have returned to their comfortable lands and palaces in Avignon and its environs, and King Charles V, one of the most capable of medieval French kings, continued his opposition to the papal court leaving Avignon. On the other hand, Saint Catherine of Siena rallied him: “Forward! Finish what you have begun!” In the end, the growing instability of the Papal States in Italy (1375) seems to have been the spur required to begin the move back to Rome. On January 17, 1377, the papal court once again took up its role in the Vatican, and the Avignon Papacy came to an end.
… and the Anti-Popes
OR DID IT? Gregory XI’s death in the spring of 1378 brought about the election of Urban VI on April 8, 1378, the first Italian Pope since the unbroken string of Frenchmen that spanned the Avignon Papacy. Much as I enjoyed Mullin’s treatment of the Avignon popes, I feel he was off-base in his portrayal of Urban VI as essentially a paranoid tyrant. Wouldn’t you feel betrayed if the same French cardinals who had been part of the conclave that elected you then vanished to another city and named one of themselves as Pope? That said, even the New Advent Catholic Encyclopedia says, “If the first days of Urban’s pontificate were unhappy, his whole reign was a series of misadventures.”
Anti-Pope “Clement VIII” naturally gravitated to the recently vacated papal palace at Avignon. He claimed that he was simply awaiting the death of “crazy” Urban VI to become the Pope for all Christendom, but when Urban VI died in 1389, it became clear that Clement VIII did not have legitimacy outside the parts of Europe that had already acknowledged him.
Clement VIII’s successor, “Benedict XIII,” had suggested that if elected as (Anti-)Pope, he would resign if the other Pope would resign so that a single Pope could lead Christendom. When the French king tried to get him to honor that pledge, however, Benedict XIII gave him the cold shoulder. That explains why the French king sent an army of mercenaries to start a siege at Avignon (and that’s when the palace gardens demonstrated their worth)! The wily Benedict XIII snuck himself out of his own palace in 1403. In 1409, the Western Schism was brought to an end when both popes were deposed and Martin V began his rule.
Avignon is a beautiful city with lots of fun spaces to enjoy, and the Palace of the Popes brings together history and fascination in a really unique combination. I hope one day that I can return with my favorite historian!