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Trip Report Avignon- the Papal Palace

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After a few days in Avignon you come to realise that the high point of the city’s history was in the fourteenth century – the day the Pope turned up.
Oh, there had been plenty of life there before. It is one of the oldest cities in
Europe. The main rocky crag that sits up above the city was the home to folk from the Bronze Age and before. There are remnants of that era in the Musée Calvet. It was rich enough then to mint its own coin.
The Romans came and went .There are glorious amphitheatres in Nimes and Orange but not in Avignon. Whatever was left of the Roman times was destroyed by the Saracens and local home makers. Then, in the twelve century there are stirrings: this nutty cleric called Benezet comes down from the hills and tells the mayor that God has told him to build a bridge. Well, why not? says the mayor, and one is built: the main bridge over the Rhone, le Pont d’Avignon. No dancing yet, but a splendid opportunity to control commercial traffic, and with the money they build the Notre Dame des Doms on the hill next to the rock.
Unhappily, with the rotten luck that seems to haunt the city, the people of Avignon choose the wrong side in a dispute over sovereignty, and the King of France rides down and knocks things down, including the walls. So there’s a slump again till the King takes a hand in pope-making. Clement V is chosen, a Frenchman, and crowned in Lyon. Rome, though, is not a nice place for a French pope. What about Avignon, then? Good hunting, plenty of wine and not too far from the King, the protector.
Accordingly in 1310 to Avignon the pope comes with a curia of six hundred. Imagine the joy of the locals. All this wealth to spend! They will need to build a new palace …and a new city wall; and all these cardinals to house in their own domains. And everyone to feed: for a good coronation you need a thousand sheep, a few hundred cows – in all, 90,000 dishes to provide for a single sitting! And then more churches to build and maintain. One huge palace is not enough; we must have a new wing. The population of Avignon goes through the roof.
And not just buildings, we must have art. Top artists are summoned from Siena. The dowdy cathedral next door must have some frescoes. My chambers need a bit of life: how about some hunting scenes on the walls? And don’t bother about any crosses and stuff: plenty of that elsewhere, thanks very much. And amazingly the whole papal infrastructure is still there today.
And then … it’s all over.
In 1376 after sixty years of unbelievable economic boom Gregory XI picks up his bat and goes back to Rome. And why not? Over the next century the popes in
Rome commission Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Bramante, Titian and Raphael: the masterpieces of the Quattrocentro are created there.
The last pope leaves behind in Avignon a legate, and these papal legates rule the place for the next four hundred years as a papal state, independent under Vatican rule until it is annexed by France in the late eighteenth century. So, in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it is a bit sleepy. It is a rotten place to live. It stinks and they get the plague quite often. Still, some of the burghers do have their snouts in the public trough and they build a few fine town houses near the Préfecture. The locals turn their hand to silk but lose out to Lyon and Milan, and the trade collapses.
Then worse still: the Revolution and soldiers come. They set up their bunk beds in the Papal Palace and paint over the frescoes.
Things start to look up a bit with the return of the monarchy, and the buildings around the Place de l’ Horologe are constructed, though strangely they commission a statue of Molière from the previous century to survey the square from the new theatre.
Then again nothing. The twentieth century brings a shopping street in the Rue de la Republique of very forgettable quality and the world wars have no impact. They try their hand at a festival but contemporary theatre doesn’t play well to sponsors, so that’s all in trouble too. The city is covered with modern graffiti donated by the disaffected youth. Nearby Montpellier gets all the IT action
So there you have it: a perfectly preserved medieval city, a wonder world of the Gothic.
When you visit the Palace you see the importance of the Treasury. God is good but money is good too and creates respect and worldly comforts. With all this wealth the popes built a mini cittá vaticana and then left. The watch stopped.
The fine paintings you see in the Petit Palais are all from one line of sight – the same sixty years. The Botticelli alone at the end of the show – painted after the popes had gone – points to a new world of the imagination about to flourish in Rome and Florence: the Renaissance. All the paintings in the earlier rooms in the Petit Palais are locked in beautiful but rigid formulae of Virgin and child – except, that is, for a few of the vivid scenes of contemporary life amongst the high born. And what fun it all was for the fourteenth-century playboy: the banquets, the hunting, and the ladies in all their finery cheering you on! and wines up the road in Chateau Neuf.
These folk could stroll about in the gardens below and mingle with the lions and the exotic fauna. The King of France comes to visit and the curia puts him in his place by seating him below the Pope. What a dream life!
And then, in a single lifetime, all is gone. Seven real popes and then two more who couldn’t give up the good life: the Schism and the two anti-popes, all gone.
You cannot understand Avignon without understanding the power of the Church. The
Holy Roman Empire hovers around the story too but that part is all too confusing.
Enjoy Avignon and step back six hundred years.

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