An unexpected decision ends a tradition dating back 420 years, at least for now
CASTEL GANDOLFO — Two years after opening its beautiful gardens to tourists, Pope Francis has decided also to open to the public the private apartments of the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo, forfeiting at least for now the possibility of using it as a place of summer rest, as his predecessors had.
As of October 21, visitors can discover these rooms, some featuring damask hangings in purple and gold, and the distinctive decor of the Vatican Apostolic Palace. Castel Gandolfo was a haven of peace particularly cherished by Pope Benedict XVI. The pope emeritus took up residence there after his resignation on February 28, 2013, as the college of cardinals elected his successor, and until work on his new home, the Mater Ecclesiae monastery in the Vatican gardens, was completed.
420 years of tradition ends for now
Acquired by the Holy See in 1596 in remission of a debt of Gandolfo Savelli under Pope Clement VIII, the castle became the summer residence of the popes in 1626, under Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644). Popes Pius XII and Paul VI died there in 1958 and 1978 respectively. John XXIII and John Paul II stayed there every summer to escape the Roman heat. The palace has playfully been called “Vatican II.”
But Pope Francis, as we know, is not fond of holidays, and when he must rest, he tends to cancel a few appointments and remain in his apartments at Santa Marta, where he has lived since his election rather than in the Apostolic Palace. “I cannot live alone, surrounded by a small group of people. I need to live with people, meeting people (…),” he has said. Pope Francis has never used Castel Gandolfo, to the great regret of local residents whose economy has depended significantly on the pope’s presence there each summer.
Steeped in history
The 55 hectares (11 more than Vatican City) of natural beauty and art is home to several villas such as the magnificent Barberini Palace and that of the Emperor Domitian, the last emperor of the Flavian dynasty. It offers stunning views of Lake Albano near Rome. The architectural modifications were entrusted to Roman Baroque master, Pietro da Cortona, a contemporary of Bernini.
In addition to the the papal palace, the property includes a welcoming farmhouse with 30 hectares of farmland, and the Vatican Observatory. In 1943, the area housed over 3,000 Jews who fled persecution.
No structural changes are planned to the palace, which falls under the direct jurisdiction of the Vatican Museums. Since September 11, 2015, tourists and pilgrims have been able to enjoy the little train, reserved until now to the sovereign pontiff, to go from Vatican City to Castel Gandolfo.
Pope Francis’ decision does not necessarily mark the definitive “end of an era” as his successor can reverse the decision and reclaim Castel Gandolfo as a place of papal summer retreat.