Haven from the Furies
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. Even the top-line line summer retreat area of Sydney—Palm Beach—with its reasonably superlative views, comes off as a middle-class conceit compared to this site.
The Emperors, and then the Popes knew a site when they saw one… and loved to grab it.
Along the top, is the sweetest of central Italian towns, strung out across a narrow ridge. Its main street—the consummate corso for an slowly ascending afternoon passiagiata—rising gradually up the ridge to the town’s highest, most prominent position—and the site of the summer palace of the Popes. Its views sweep down to Rome on one side, and across fields and farms to the coast on the other. From all sides, the prevailing, leavening summer breezes filter through its open windows and 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! However, words like “magnificent” and “sumptuous” don’t apply here, as they might for scores of the monumentally, ornate public buildings of Rome and the Vatican; built to impress and stultify. This is a restorative retreat. More suitable words would be “serene”, “sublime” and “complete”. It does not exude the sensory overload of the more showy buildings of the city below.
Still, it’s no rustic holiday retreat in the woods above an ancient and placid lake. This calming palace would still rank as the grandest home anywhere in Sydney.
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, it become a museum run by Vatican Museums. And I suspect, by 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.
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 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.
A Pope at home
And that would have been enough. But, the top floor—the actual private papal apartment—is completely and transparently open for all to visit; flowing through increasingly intimate spaces that end in the Pope’s personal chambers and bedroom... The modesty of his bedroom beckons in the stunning views that 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 this extraordinarily intimate space, there were only about half a dozen visitors on a warm Saturday afternoon… along with some sleepy guards, slumped undisturbed.
It might be nice that this space was still in use as it has for several centuries. As pleasing as it is, it really belongs to the age of emperors and absolute monarchs. And though the Vatican remains Europe’s last absolute monarchial state, I don’t think it’s where Francis wants it to be.
Considering the human expreiences of a Pope in such a personal space, quickly casts one’s mind to wonder how the current Pope is managing the greatest challenge to his or any Pope’s authority since the attempted reforms of the Vatican Council era. It was a period that promised so much yet was smothered by its guardians soon after birth.
This Pope is now facing a direct assault from a cabal of particularly nasty reactionaries as he seeks to implement the Council’s touchstone principals. And while these reforms were outlined nearly sixty years ago, they don’t even address the needs of a world that has not stopped changing!
Amazingly, in a bid to maintain their privileges, his detractors have chosen to attack him on something they couldn’t possible comprehend; as they are committed to perpetuating personality-warping beliefs, who’s logical outcomes must be child abuse.
The Pope has already identified “clericalism” (i.e. priestly privileges and separation from society) as the main driver of the abuse. However, the Pope can never fully square the circle till he puts up for reconsideration, all the increasingly irrelevant ideas the church officially holds on gender, sex, sexuality and relationships.
The insurgents may feel the fight is their most significant since Vatican II. Yet the long smoldering child abuse issues represents the greatest institutional threat to the church since the Reformation. Watch this space, things are unfolding as we speak…
And while this pleasing palace may have once offered a Pope refuge from such attacks, it’s pretty easy to appreciate that Francis feels that Castle Gondolfo is redundant to his or the needs of the future office, (along with big cars). So, better to throw it open and share with anyone and everyone.. and it's just 40 mins by train from Central Rome.
Couple before one of three weddings in the town.
Flock of bambini at the base of a Virgin, in the town church, between weddings.
Good use of spare Roman column under a new alter.
Zen like garden arrangement at the side entrance to the Palace.
Cultivated row of native trees, with views to the coast.
An equestrian statue in the garden.
Austere landscaping, i.e. in comparison to Villa d'Este.
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.
Detail of portrait of current Pope.
A collection of redundant cars from the Papal pool. Just enough space to squeeze in cinque cento..
A refreshing breeze circulates around a statue of John XXXIII.
A modest reception area.
Pope Someone the Something or Rather.
Pope Someone Else the Something or Rather.. a very heavy headpiece!
Statuary from the garden?
A view from the private areas, looking toward Rome.
Pope’s rather small private study.
Pope’s rather singular bed.
A somewhat bizzare modern fresco in the private chapel. I’m assuming this more modestly attired Mm. Liberty, is not leading the Communists to victory. Im suspecting of Polish origins.
Lake Albano, a deep, still lake formed by an ancient volcano, viewed from the Palace.
Town piazza in the late afternoon, looking toward the Palace entrance.
The town piazza, looking from the Palace entrance.