Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Avignon, Papal Palace in Provence (part 1)

Although it makes virtually no sense, even though I am an active Mennonite, I remain fascinated with the history of the papacy at Avignon. Rome's infrastructure had seriously deteriorated by the late 13th century, its water supply was hardly the best, the city's leading families were not to be trusted, the city's population had dwindled to possibly a mere 20,000 residents (possibly considerably fewer), peninsular politics were as treacherous as they were passionate, and Peter's tomb was only one of many worthy pilgrimage destinations in Europe. By 1300, a number of popes had never bothered to live in Rome, and instead imitated secular monarchs who lived in a variety of places. Clement V felt that Avignon might be a good compromise location, considering rivalries of the blacks and whites (Italian political parties) and the unprecedented political interference of King Philip of France. So the papacy became increasingly centered in Avignon c. 1307-09 into the late 1370s, and afterwards during the decades in which European Christians watched helplessly as two--and then three--popes vied for legitimacy. The court centered at Avignon became increasingly secular in its trappings and politics, and its music (of great interest to me) reached rhythmic complexities unmatched until the 20th century.

The papal palace has since undergone at least one major fire, multiple plunderings, served as a military garrison, was bombed, and has finally once again found peace as an historical monument. It was fascinating to walk through the rooms, listening to the excellent recorded explanations by guides, and ruminating about papal life in this fortified palace far from Rome. Today large slabs of pavement stones are propped up to reveal where the papacy used to hide its silver artifacts and gold coins, for there were no bank vaults that could be trusted with such wealth and the only reasonable insurance available was provided by highly-paid armed guards.

The large chapel would have offered excellent acoustics for the intricate three- and four-part counterpoint of Europe's best soloists, and also enhanced the unison singing of the monks, priests and cardinals. The furniture and tapestries have long since vanished (to Rome and elsewhere), and the paintings on the ceilings and walls could hardly be expected to survive 600 years, but with a little creativity one can still re-enter this period of time in one's imagination.

The pictures I have selected show the great chapel in which I stood, imagining how its stone surfaces would enhance vocal singing and becloud a speaking voice. Since the palace underwent multiple enlargements, I include one photo showing multiple arches which are utterly confusing and would require more architectural knowledge than I have if they are to be sorted out. I also give a picture of the town and countryside as seen through an archer's eyes when looking out through the defensive slits towards the top of the outer stone walls, slits which cleverly protected the palace's archers while raining arrows on unwanted visitors. The tower seen through the archways of the cloister's walkway reminds me that there were both times of contemplative peace in the cloister and the promise of safety in the tower. If only the papal study had not been blocked off so effectively, I would have gladly included a shot of that relatively modest upper room (reconstructed). For more photos, see Avignon, Papal Palace (part 2).