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Set high, on narrow ridge over-looking a volcanic crater lake of breathtaking sublimity, is the traditional summer residence of the Popes, and haven from the Furies of Rome, just 25 kms away.
Roman notaries have been building their summer houses here since the days of the Empire. The Emperors were here for several reigns, until Hadrian moved his summer house to Tivoli (Hadrian’s Villa). In real-estate terms, what a mistake! Geographically, his new site, fades into insignificance.
The Emperors, and then the Popes knew a site when they saw one… and loved to grab it.
The town of Castel Gandolfo sits astride a high narrow ridge, as the sweetest of central Italian towns. Its main street is the consummate corso for a slowly ascending afternoon passiagiata. It rises gradually up the ridge to the town’s highest, most prominent position—and the site of the summer palace of the Popes. From the Palace, views sweep down to Rome on one side, and across fields and farms to the coast on the other. From all sides, a prevailing, leavening summer breezes flutters through its open windows and meanders down its long corridors.
The site includes the gardens and a working farm. It has been in Vatican hands, since the Popes foreclosed on an unfortunate debtor during the Renaissance. Some debtor! Yet it is neither “magnificent” or “sumptuous”, as are many of the monumentally, ornate public buildings of Rome and the Vatican. These were built to impress and impose. This Palace is a restorative retreat. More suitable descriptors would be “serene”, “sublime” and “complete”. It does not exude the sensory overload of the more showy buildings of the city below.
Yet, neither is it a rustic holiday retreat in the woods above an ancient and placid lake.
Zen like garden from side path of the Palace
Flock of bambini at the base of a Virgin, in the town church.
Cultivated row of native trees, with views to the coast.
An equestrian statue in the garden.
Since the Lateran Pact of 1929, the site has been an extra-territorial property of the Vatican and thus beyond the grasp of the state of Italy. And within its gardens are many artfully arranged classical statues and features, miraculously discovered once the pact was concluded. (Mussolini was dogged such by bad luck)
Pope Francis, with very little interest in the accoutrements of office, has no desire to use the site as his personal retreat. So, rather than just lock it up and let the dust gather, in 2016, the Palace become a museum run by Vatican Museums. And I suspect, from the paucity of visitors, that it remains largely undiscovered and under appreciated.
Inside the Papal Palace are the expected long halls and reception rooms full of portraits of past Popes. As apparitions, they present as variations on a theme— declining old men, swaddled in ermine; some sagacious, some wizened, and some clutching at the chair arms for support. It would hard to be a reforming Pope with this lot looking over your shoulder.
One of the several formal, enclosed gardens.
Another shaded enclosed garden.
Expanding staircase flows from terrace of Roman ruins.
An historic Papal throne. Every time he sits down, he lands on a memory jogger, which reminds him who he is... “You are Peter"...
Passing view from a random Palace window.
A refreshing breeze circulates around a statue of John XXXIII.
A modest reception area.
But it is the intruding nature and the surrounds that trump any paintings or sculptures. Stunning views in all directions— across landscapes, over the town and across the cultivated gardens—repeat on all sides; from open window to open window, and through unlatched doors. The soft subtle breezes that flow gently as zephyrs through the rooms, are delivered with varying doses of direct, dappled and reflected light.
An old Pope.
Roman statuary from the garden?
Open window in the private apartment.
A view from the private apartments, looking toward Rome.
And that would have been enough. But, the top floor—the actual private papal apartment—is completely and transparently open for all to visit. A path passes through increasingly intimate spaces—private sitting rooms and reading area—before reaching the previous Pope’s personal chambers and bedroom... The modesty of his bedroom certainly fail to challenge the stunning views from the windows, as they fall away from its high corner position. Jutting from the centre of a back wall, is a singularly and particularly chaste, oversized single bed.
These chambers were in ongoing use, till just five years ago.. And despite complete access to such an extraordinarily intimate and historic space, there were only about half a dozen visitors shuffling quietly through to the Palace on a warm Saturday afternoon… letting the sleepy guards remain slumped, undisturbed.
It might be nice that this Palace is used for several more centuries, in same way it has been. The town's people, who enjoyed proximate intimacy with past papal residents, certainly hope so. As pleasing as it sounds, the Palace really belongs to the age of emperors and absolute monarchs. And though the Vatican remains Europe’s last absolute monarchial state, it’s not where Francis wants to be.
So, better to throw it open and share with anyone and everyone.. and it's just 40 mins by train from Central Rome.
The previous Pope’s compact private study.
The previous Pope’s rather singular bed.
A somewhat bizarre modern fresco in the private chapel. Maybe Polish in style.
Lake Albano, a deep, still lake formed by an ancient volcano, viewed from a Palace window.
Town piazza in the late afternoon, looking toward the Palace entrance.
The town piazza, looking from the Palace entrance.