The Coming of the Antipopes: Avignon’s Papal Palace

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Palace of the Popes, Palais des Papes, Avignon, France

The vast complex that is the Popes’ Palace in Avignon is widely regarded as being one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in Europe and has, since 1995, been classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Tourists make a bee-line for the palace, and I was one of the eager tourists who joined the longish queues to get tickets.  This was, I felt, going to be the highlight of my trip in the South of the France.

The main reason I was excited was because of the incredible history of the place.  I mean, to have been home to both popes and anti-popes is pretty cool and though I have only a weak understanding of the history of that period, I thought this was going to be a good opportunity to learn more.

Avignon became the residence of the popes basically because in the early 1300s there were problems between Italians and French cardinals.  The election in 1305 of the French Gascon Bertrand de Goth led to violence in Rome.  Taking the title of Clement V, he moved the Papal Curia to Avignon, lodging at the Dominican monastery.   The next pope, John XXII, took over the episcopal seat next to the cathedral in Avignon and in 1335 his successor, Benedict XII, commissioned the architect Pierre Poisson to build what is known as the Old Palace.

Strong walls were built to defend the palace and protect the pope and his wealth.  The next pope, Clement VI, commissioned the architect Jean de Louvres to build what became known as the New Palace.  Much of the palace was completed before his death, and the subsequent popes made minor changes to the living and working quarters.

But it soon became obsolete. Despite opposition from the French court, Gregory XI managed to return the papacy to Rome in 1370 – one of the arguments cited was that the See could only legitimately be at the site of St Peter’s tomb.

And this ended the brief glory of the palace. It had a brief revival with the two anti-popes, but their title says everything about their status and short-lived success.  Clement VII and Benedict XIII made Avignon their home until 1403.

For 350 years the palace remain under papal control, though a lack of funding saw its condition deteriorate.  Revolutionary forces sacked the building in 1789 and in 1791 counter-revolutionaries were massacred there, with the bodies being thrown into the Tour des Latrines.

The Palais was subsequently used as a military barracks and prison.  Distressingly, much of the remaining interior decoration, such as frescoes and woodwork, was destroyed when the building was remodelled and used as stables.  In 1906 it was finally vacated by soldiers and horses and became a national museum.  

The first room you enter is the Consistory Hall.  This was where the Pope convened meetings with cardinals and received visiting dignitaries.  There was a terrible fire in the room, and traces of the damage can still be seen in the reddish tinted stones.  In the 16th century, the room was turned into a tennis court – Louis XIV played there during his stay in Avignon.

There are some interesting displays in this room, but the real highlights were the exquisite paintings by Simone Martini, originally in the portal of the city’s Notre-Dame-des-Doms Cathedral.  Martini was a Sienese artist who came to work for the popes in Avignon, along with others of the Sienese school.  While there, he became friends with the poet Petrarch, who referred to a portrait of Laura de Noves, the poet’s platonic lady-love, that Martini painted.

When the frescoes were removed from the cathedral in the 1960s, two sets of underdrawings were also discovered, and are on show alongside the top layer.  It is fascinating to compare the preparatory drawings with the finished works.

The St Martial chapel is off to the side of this room.  It is a beautiful, tiny space filled with the delicate frescoes of Matteo Giovanetti, painted in 1344/5.  Unfortunately, you aren’t really allowed in, and instead have to peer over the heads of other visitors.  Nor are you allowed to take photos.  The details of the painting were hard to see, but what you could make out was just lovely – sort of like a smaller scale Giotto.

During conclaves, the cardinals met in the Grand Tinel to elect a new pope.  At these times the room was given temporary walls and only an opening was left to provide food, until the cardinals reached their decision. After each conclave, the walls were destroyed and everything went back to normal.

One of the highlights of the place was the studium, or private study of Clement VI.  It’s generally referred to as the chambre du cerf (room of the deer) due to the amazing 14th century frescoes showing hunting scenes.  Sadly, taking photos was again prohibited, and fair enough, because the room was super-crowded, and it was difficult to find a place to stop and just look at the wonderful and densely decorated walls.  The frescoes were probably painted by French artists, who were either highly influenced by Sienese art, or were led by Simone Martini and/or Matteo Giovanetti.

So In Summary

Despite the fact that Palace is a very grand place, I didn’t find the visit very engaging.  In some ways this was because it was quite busy, filled with people standing about looking at their interactive devices instead of actually looking around.  Some rooms are huge but at various points there isn’t much space – tour groups suffocated some  rooms and we had to loiter, waiting for them to go so we could look round.  But I think this was the main problem: there wasn’t really much to look at.  The rooms themselves are grand, but basically empty, and there are occasional displays of items which are interesting enough, but not amazing.  The highlights are the frescoes – but you can’t really stand and admire them for very long because there isn’t enough space.  Basically,  it wasn’t as evocative as I had expected.  Of course, I knew the palace wasn’t going to be like the Vatican, but still, I had hoped that there would be more substance…

Further Information

There is a fee to enter the Palace and you can get a joint ticket which gets you to the Bridge of Avignon.

There is a website, which has good general information and it’s available in English and other major European languages too:

If you’re lucky, you’ll get to see an exhibition when you visit: when I went it was a great Christian Lacroix one which had objects from all the Avignon museums.

How To Get There

As with the rest of Avignon, the Palace is easy to walk to from the train station and other sites.  If you go to the central train station, just follow the crowds – they’re all headed to the Palace!  There is a website for the bus service which has information in English:

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