Facade, Palais des Papes, AvignonThe Popes' Palace, is the star attraction in Avignon, a monumental structure which briefly transformed a sleepy provincial town into a glittering centre of European power.

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The Palais des Papes occupies a commanding position on the Rocher des Doms, a raised rocky outcrop on the northern edge of the walled city that has been landscaped into a popular public gardens.

It looms up next to the Petit Palais and La Cathédrale Notre Dame des Doms and overlooksthe Pont d'Avignon and the Rhône river. Most of Avignon's major sites are clustered here!

Visible from afar, the Palais des Papes boasts 15,000 square metres / 160,000 square feet of floor space, the equivalent of four large cathedrals. It's the biggest Gothic palace in Europe. Yet, astonishingly, it was completed in under 20 years.

This is a guide to the palace's main areas. Click here to read about the "secret tour" of the Avignon Popes' private quarters, which are normally closed to the public but which you can visit with an English-speaking guide at certain times of the year.

THE AVIGNON POPES

The Avignon Papacy lasted from 1309 to 1376, when seven Popes based their court there. They were Clement V (1305–1314), John XXII (1316–1334), Benedict XII (1334–1342), Clement VI (1342–1352), Innocent VI (1352–1362), Urban V (1362–1370) and Gregory XI (1370–1378). But why did they leave Rome in the first place?

Queen Joanna of NaplesThe story begins with a long-running conflict between the Vatican and the Kings of France. When a Frenchman, Bertrand de Got (who later gave his name to berlingot candies), was elected Pope Clement V, he moved to Avignon.

The reason: the city was not part of France at the time, and the new Pope avoided getting caught in the crossfire!

Clement V firmed up the French connection by appointing nine of his French allies as cardinals. Since they would elect the next Pope, it was a virtual guarantee that the papacy would remain French.

And so it proved. His six successors, all of them French, continued the tradition. By the end of the Avignon Papacy, 111 of the new 134 cardinals created were French as well.

Avignon's links to the papacy were cemented after an extraordinary episode in the life of Joanna, Queen of Naples (1327-82), whose realm included the city. Joanna (pictured above) was accused in 1345 of her husband's murder.

Some whispered that he was strangled with a golden rope woven by her own fair hand. But she escaped prosecution - and secured papal approval for her swift remarriage - by signing over Avignon to the Holy See in 1348 for 80,000 florins.

Read more about Queen Joanna in Joanna: The Notorious Queen of Naples, Jerusalem and Sicily by Nancy Goldstone.

The Avignon Papacy was controversial. Within the mighty walls of the Palais, cabals, corruption, excess and spiritual compromise reigned.

The Palais des Papes, viewed from a distanceSome of the Popes were virtuous men, of course. And the Great Chapel and Library, with its 2,000 books, the largest in Europe at the time, attracted brilliant musicians and scholars. Still, back in Rome the papacy was contemptuously referred to as the "Babylon Captivity".

The Popes remained in Avignon until 1377, when Gregory XI was persuaded to move back to the Vatican. He died there the following year and riots in Rome ensured that an Italian, Urban VI, succeeded him.

The troubles didn't end there, though. Following a further dispute known as the Western Schism, two unofficial anti-popes, Clement VII, followed by Benedict XIII, appeared again in Avignon. Soon even more anti-popes were setting up shop elsewhere in France.

The election of Martin V in 1417 finally put an end to the proliferating pontiffs. But the Catholic Church would never be the same again.

You can see portraits of Avignon's seven official Popes and two anti-popes in the Palais des Papes, though these were painted in 1839-40 by Henri Serrur and are fanciful rather than accurate.

On closer inspection you notice that, despite a few tweaks to the hair or some ageing up or down, the same model has posed for them all. Photograph, above, of the Palais des Papes © Jean-Marc Rosier.

THE BUILDING OF THE PALAIS DES PAPES

Hugely expensive, the Palais des Papes consumed much of the papal income, which was fortunately handsome thanks to numerous church levies and taxes.

Palais Vieux, Palais des Papes, CloisterIt was built in two main stages and consists of two distinct wings, the austere Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and the more luxurious Palais Neuf (New Palace). Despite their names, only a couple of decades separate their construction.

Avignon's first Pope, Clement V, had contented himself with making his home in the city's Dominican monastery and his successor, John XXII, refurbished the existing episcopal palace for his quarters. But in 1335 Benedict XII decided he wanted his very own papal residence and had the episcopal palace razed to make way for it.

 

 

Designed by the architect Pierre Poisson of Mirepoix, Benedict's Palais Vieux is an imposing structure centred on a cloister (pictured above) with four towers at each corner. As its controversial status must have dictated, it seems more like a fortress than a spiritual centre, and its forbidding austerity reflects Benedict's own Spartan character.

Pope Clement VIIn 1343 Clement VI (pictured), considering the Palais Vieux too cramped for his needs, commissioned Jean de Louvres to build the Palais Neuf. Within a year, two new towers were up.

Clement VI was more of a bon vivant than Benedict and the new wing was lavishly decorated with tapestries, paintings, sculptures, carved wooden ceilings and frescos.

All this work emptied the papal coffers. But the next Popes, Innocent VI and Urban V, still managed to scrape together enough to add various more improvements. The Palais Neuf was finally completed in 1363.

The Palais des Papes remained under papal control for over 350 years after the Popes had moved back to Rome, and continued to be used as a residence for visiting legates, But it gradually deteriorated, and was comprehensively sacked and looted during the French Revolution (1789-99).

Reverting to France in 1791, it became a military barracks and prison and during this time much of the interior decoration was destroyed.

It became a national museum in 1906 and is still under restoration. It was classified, along with the historic centre of Avignon, as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995.

THE VISIT

Open 365 days a year, the palace is one of the ten most popular monuments in France. Click here to visit the website for the Palais des Papes.

Thumbnail map of the Palais des Papes, AvignonIt is cheaper to buy a pass to both the Palais des Papes and the Pont d'Avignon. Cheaper still is the "Avignon Passion" pass. Pick it up on your first visit to a local monument and you will get discounts of between 10% and 50% to subsequent attractions, both in Avignon itself and in neighbouring Villeneuve lès Avignon, just across the river.

The card is valid for 15 days and can apply to up to five persons. More details from the Avignon Tourist Office.

The open-access areas take in over 20 rooms, mainly, though not entirely, in the Palais Vieux (the Secret Tour of the Palais des Papes is based in the Palais Neuf and weaves in and out of the public areas in that wing). Click on the map of the Palais des Papes to enlarge the image.

There is a recommended itinerary, though if you are not taking a guided tour you are free to wander through the public rooms at will. The signage is all in French but an audio tour in nine languages is included in the price of admission.

If you listen to all the numerous detailed earphone commentaries, a self-guided tour will last around 90 minutes.

The rooms in the Palais Vieux are huge, high-ceilinged, severe and somewhat overwhelming. In the Palais Neuf, they are more colourful and intimate. In both wings they are unfurnished and in some cases the original decor has long vanished.

Pope's bedchamber, Palais des Papes, AvignonSome of the rooms are shadows of the glory that must have been. Others have been restored, such as the superbly tiled and painted Pope's bedchamber (photograph by Jean-Marc Rosier).

In them, you can readily imagine the pomp and extravagance of the Avignon Papacy.

Numerous special interest tours and, in summer, events help bring the old stones alive (see below for more details of what's currently on offer).

And throughout the year you can go on a multi-media circuit using a PDA audio guide system with 2-D and 3-D video animation available in eleven languages.

The visual simulations aim to flesh out the bare rooms of the Palace with images of the sumptuous frescoes, furnishings and other decors of the Papal court in the 14th century.

Animated audio guides are also available for sight and hearing impaired visitors.

The public areas of the Palais des Papes are more accessible than those on the Secret Tour, but they still involve a lot of stairs and walking on uneven surfaces and are likely to be difficult for anyone of restricted mobility. Wear flat, comfortable shoes.

Drinks vending machines are dotted around and there is a small cafeteria (up another steep flight of stairs). It closes at the end of the afternoon, sometimes well before the Palais itself does. In high summer it's probably prudent to bring your own bottle of water.

All the Avignon Popes were great wine-lovers and did much to promote viticulture: not for nothing is one of the region's best-known wines called Châteauneuf du Pape. Click here to read more about the relationship between wine and the Avignon Popes.

News for the Palais des Papes in AvignonRenovation work is complete on the magnificent Chapelle Saint Martial (Saint Martial Chapel), which has been closed to the public for ten years. Pictured: a detail from one of the partly restored frescos.

After his election to the papacy in 1342, Clement VI decided to refurbish the chapel and commissioned his favourite painter, Matteo Giovannetti, to decorate the walls and ceilings with frescos depicting scenes from Saint Martial's life. They were created between 1344 and 1346.

saint martial chapel avignonConsidered as the 13th apostle, Saint Martial was dispatched by Saint Peter to convert the south of Gaul.

Clement VI hoped the chapel would suggest parallels between him and the Avignon Popes and help confirm their legitimacy.

The chapel can be viewed, accompanied by a guide. Tours take an hour, during which you see the fresco, discover the techniques of its restoration and learn about other frescos in the Consisitory Hall and Saint Jean Chapel of the Palais des Papes.

These tours are rather infrequent, since the precious frescos can't survive prolonged exposure to visitors, so you'll need to check with the Tourist Office whether they are running.

The Palais des Papes offers a range of other special-interest visits. You can view the current guided tours of the Palais des Papes and book tickets here.

 

OTHER EVENTS AT THE PALAIS DES PAPES

Festival d'Avignon, Cours d'Honneur, Palais des PapesThe most important and famous event in the Palais des Papes is the annual Festival d'Avignon. First launched in 1947, it takes place each summer in July and is held in, among other places, the majestic location of the Palais' Court of Honour (pictured). The Palais also regularly stages art exhibitions in the Great Chapel.

Every other year (in even-numbered years) in May, the Palais des Papes hosts Alterarosa, a festival devoted to the rose.

Thousands of rose bushes bloom in a pop-up garden in the cloisters, accompanied by stalls, demonstrations, tours and lectures. In 2016 restaurants and shops devised rose-themed meals and events too.

Alterarosa Palais des Papes Avignon 2013Crowds of rose enthusiasts converge on Avignon each year for Alterarosa, at which new varieties are also unveiled under the auspices of the French Society of Roses.

Website for Alterarosa. The name, by the way, refers to "altera Roma", or "another Rome", an old name for Avignon.

An animated multimedia tour circuit of the Palais des Papes with 2-D and 3-D video animation is now also available.

Avignon has introduced a new late-summer attraction aimed at families: Luminessences, an open-air 3D son et lumière spectacle.

luminessences avignonHeld in the Court of Honour of the Palais des Papes, this 35-minute show looks at both the stormy history of the Avignon Popes and the central role of the Palais in later times as the venue for the Festival d'Avignon and other arts.

Click here to read our review of the show.

The season has been extended and the show expanded: in 2017 it runs from 12 August to 30 September. There are performances in English each night at 10.15pm and in French at 9.15pm. Website for Luminessences Photograph © G Quittard for Luminessences.

Click here to read about Invisible Bridges, Gianfranco Iannuzzi's son et lumière installation at the Palais des Papes in 2010-2011.

 

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