The Building of the Great Palace

By Thomas Oakey


It will now be convenient briefly to trace the growth of that remarkable edifice, at once a castle and a cloister, a palace and a prison, which constitutes the chief attraction of Avignon to-day, and which, altho defaced by time and by modern restorers, remains in its massive grandeur a fitting memorial of the great line of pontiffs who have made that little city famous in the annals of Christendom.

We have seen that Pope John XXII., having allotted a piece of land to his nephew, Arnaud de Via, for the erection of a new episcopal palace, was content to modify and enlarge the old one for pontifical uses, and that Benedict XII., with characteristic straightforwardness, purchased the new fabric from Arnaud's heirs and, having handed it over to the diocesan authorities, proceeded to transform the old building into a stately and spacious apostolic palace for the head of Christendom.

He was moved to this purchase after mature reflection, for it was a matter of urgent importance that the pontiff of the church of Rome should possess a palace of his own at Avignon as long as it might be necessary for him to remain there. The relation between Curia and Episcopate being thus clearly defined, Benedict appointed a compatriot, Pierre Poisson de Mirepoix, master of the works, and, since about two-thirds of the existing palace dates from Benedict's reign, Pierre Poisson may be regarded as its first architect.

More, probably, is known of the construction of the papal palace of Avignon than of any other relic of medieval architecture. Thanks to the researches of Father Ehrle, Prefect of the Vatican Library, and other scholars, the sums paid to the contractors, their names, the estimates of quantities, the wages of the chief workmen, and the price of materials, are before us, and we can trace day by day and month by month the progress of the great pile. The whole of the craftsmen, with the exception of the later master painters from Italy and some northern sculptors, were either Avignonais, Gascons or Provencals.

The first work undertaken by Pierre was the enlargement of the papal chapel of John XXII. This was doubled in length, and the lavish decorations executed by John's master painter, Friar Pierre Dupuy, were continued on the walls of the added portion; payments for white, green, indigo, vermilion, carmine and other pigments, and for colored tiles, testify to the brilliancy of its interior.

Meanwhile work was proceeding on the massy new tower, the Turris Magna, now known as the Tour des Anges, the best preserved of all the old towers. The foundations were laid on April 3, 1335, and it was roofed with lead on March 18, 1337. The basement formed the papal wine-cellar; the ground floor was the treasury, or strong room, where the specie, the jewels, the precious vessels of gold and silver and other valuables were stored; many payments are recorded for locks and bars and bolts for their safe-keeping within the ten-feet-thick walls of the tower.

The next great work put in hand was the east wing, which was raised on a space left by John's demolished, or partially demolished, structure. On November 20, 1337, two masons (lapiscidarios), Pierre Folcaud and Jean Chapelier, and a carpenter, Jacques Beyran, all of Avignon, contracted to carry out the plans of a new architect, Bernard Canello, for the completion of Benedict's private apartments, and on the same day Lambert Fabre and Martin Guinaud, housewreckers, were paid eighty-three gold florins on account, for the demolition of the old buildings. This wing, since wholly remodeled by the legates and the modern corps of engineers, comprised the papal Garde Robe, the Garde Meuble, the private kitchen and offices and, on the floor above, the papal dining-room, study and private oratory. The walls were, of course, embattlemented, and in 1337 the most exposed portions of the new buildings were defended by a stout rampart….

The whole ground floor, 110 feet by 33, was occupied by a great reception hall (Camera Paramenti), where distinguished visitors were accorded a first welcome before being admitted to a private audience, or accorded a solemn state reception in consistory, as the import of their embassy demanded. The popes were also used to receive the cardinals there, and two doorkeepers were appointed who must be faithful, virtuous and honest men and sleep in the hall; their office being one of great trust, was highly paid, and they were generally laymen. It was probably in this hall that St. Catherine was received by Clement VI. The Avignon conclaves were held there, for on December 31, 1352, four hundred and fifteen days' and nights' labor were employed in breaking down the walls between the dining- hall and the Camera Paramenti, clearing away the stones and making secret chambers for the lord cardinals, in which chambers were twenty-eight cells….

On September 5, 1339, John's old belfry was pulled down and Jean Mauser de Carnot, who asserted he had excavated 11,300 basketfuls of rubbish, was paid at the rate of twelve deniers the hundred for the work. Evidently these were good times for the basket makers as well as builders. December 22, 1340, three contractors, Isnard and Raymond Durand and Jacques Gasquet, received 1,273 florins for the completed new tower, with its barbicans, battlements and machicoulis, which was on the site and which retained the appellation of the Tour de la Campane, or Bell Tower. The embattlemented and machicolated summit, but not the chastelet, of this mighty tower has recently been restored; its walls are nearly twelve feet thick….

Benedict's last undertaking was the erection of the Tour de Trouillas, next the Tour des Latrines, and on April 20, 1341, sixteen rubbish baskets were bought for the "Saracens that excavated the foundations of the turris nova." The Tour de Trouillas, tallest and stoutest of the keeps of the mighty fortress, is 175 feet high as compared with the 150 feet of the Tour de la Campane, and its walls fifteen feet thick as compared with twelve feet. It should be noted, however, that the latter tower appears the taller owing to the elevated ground whereon, it stands….

Having bought, by private agreement or by arbitration, all the houses adjacent to the palace on the south side, Clement next proceeded to demolish them and on the site to raise the noblest and most beautiful wing of the great palace. This edifice, known to contemporaries as the great new palace, comprised a spacious Chapel and Hall of Justice; and in August 9, 1344, contracts were made for cutting away and leveling the rock above the present Rue Peyrolerie, whereon, by October 21, 1351, the masons had raised their beautiful building.

On that day, by order of our lord the pope, one hundred florins were handed over by the papal chamber to Master John of Loubieres to distribute among the masters to celebrate the placing of the keystone in the vaulting of the new chapel of the palace and the completion of the said chapel. On All Saints' Day of that same year Clement recited (a month before his death) the first solemn mass in his great new chapel and preached a most eloquent sermon, praising God for the completion of his life's work. The lower hall, most famous of judicial chambers in Christendom and final Court of Appeal in all questions of international and ecclesiastical law, was later in opening.

Among the amenities of the old palace were the spacious and lovely gardens on the east, with their clipt hedges, avenues of trees, flower-beds and covered and frescoed walls, all kept fresh and green by channels of water. John maintained a menagerie of lions and other wild and strange beasts; stately peacocks swept proudly along the green swards, for the inventory of 1369 specifies seventeen peacocks, some old and some young, whereof six were white.

But we have as yet dealt chiefly with the external shell of this mass of architecture which, tall and mighty, raises its once impregnable walls and towers against the sky. The beauty of its interior remains briefly to be touched upon, for the fortress palace had, as Clement left it, some analogy with the great Moorish palace of the Alhambra in that it stood outwardly grim and strong, while within it was a shrine of exquisite and luxurious art.

The austere Benedict, who, his biographer tells us, left the walls of the consistory naked, appears to have expended little on the pictorial decorations of the halls and chambers erected during his pontificate; but with the elevation of the luxurious and art-loving Clement VI., a new spirit breathes over the fabric. The stern simplicity and noble strength of his predecessor's work assume an internal vesture of richness and beauty; the walls glow with azure and gold; a legion of Gallic sculptors and Italian painters lavish their art on the embellishment of the palace….

Such, in brief outline, was the progress of the mighty fabric and its internal decoration which the great popes of Avignon raised to be their dwelling-place, their fortress, and the ecclesiastical center of Christendom. Tho shorn of all its pristine beauty and robbed of much of its symmetry, it stands to-day in bulk and majesty, much as it stood at the end of Clement VI.'s reign, when a contemporary writer describes it as a quadrangular edifice, enclosed within high walls and towers and constructed in most noble style, and tho it was all most beautiful to look upon, there were three parts of transcendent beauty: the Audientia, the Capella major, and the terraces: and these were so admirably planned and contrived that peradventure no palace comparable to it was to be found in the whole world. The terraces referred to were those raised over the great chapel, and were formed of stone, bedded in asphalt and laid on a staging of stout oak joists; the view from the terraces was unparalleled for range and beauty.

The glowing splendor of frescoed walls was enhanced by gorgeous hangings and tapestries and by the magnificent robes and jewels of popes and cardinals. Crowds of goldsmiths--forty were employed at the papal court-- embroiderers and silk mercers, made Avignon famous thoughout Europe. In 1337, 318 florins were paid for eight Paris carpets; in 1343 Clement VI. paid 213 florins for green silk hangings, and 254 florins for carpets adorned with roses; in 1348, 400 gold and silver vessels turned the scales at 862 marks, 5 ounces; in the inventory of 1369, despite the fact that the most precious had been sent to Rome, the gold vessels were weighed out at 1,434 marks, 1 ounce; the silver at 5,525 marks 7 ounces.

A cardinal's hat cost from 15 to 40 florins, and in 1348, 150 florins were paid for one piece of scarlet for the pope, and 75 to 100 florins for the garniture of a riding cloak. Clement VI. spent 1,278 florins in the purchase of cloth of gold, woven by the Saracens of Damascus; one payment to Jacopo Malabayla of Arti for summer and winter clothing for the papal household amounted to 6,510 florins, and the same obviously Hebrew merchant received 10,652 florins in 1341 for cloth and ermine and beaver; in 1347 Clement's furrier received 1,080 ermine skins, whereof 430 were used in one cloak, 310 for a mantle, 150 for two hoods, and 88 for nine birettas; in 1351, 2,258 florins went to Tuscany for silk, and 385 for brocade to Venice.

The richness of the papal utensils beggars description; jeweled cups, flagons of gold, knife handles of jasper and ivory, forks of mother-of- pearl and gold. A goldsmith in 1382 was paid 14 florins for repairing two of the last-named implements. The flabelli, or processional feather fans, cost 14 florins; Benedict XIII., paid 300 florins for an enameled silver bit; the Golden Roses cost from 100 to 300 florins. Presents of jewels were costly and frequent. Gregory XI. gave 168 pearls, value 179 francs, to the citizens of Avellino; Clement VII. presented the Duke of Burgundy with a ring of gold, worth 335 florins; an aguiere of gold and pearls, valued at 1,000 florins, and two tables each over 200 florins. Richer gifts were lavished on sovereign princes. Reliquaries were of prodigious value; the gold cross containing a piece of the true cross at the Celestins weighed fifteen pounds. In 1375 a silver arm for the image of St. Andrew cost over 2,566 florins.

The cardinals were equally munificent. The most striking example of lavish splendor is afforded by the State banquet given to Clement V., by the Cardinals Arnaud de Palegrue and Pierre Taillefer in May, 1308. Clement, as he descended from his litter, was received by his hosts and twenty chaplains, who conducted him to a chamber hung with richest tapestries from floor to ceiling; he trod on velvet carpet of triple pile; his state- bed was draped with fine crimson velvet, lined with white ermine; the sheets of silk were embroidered with silver and gold.

The table was served by four papal knights and twelve squires, who each received silver girdles and purses filled with gold from the hosts. Fifty cardinals' squires assisted them in serving the banquet, which consisted of nine courses of three plates each--twenty-seven dishes in all. The meats were built up in fantastic form: castles, gigantic stags, boars, horses, etc. After the fourth service, the cardinal offered his holiness a milk-white steed worth 400 florins; two gold rings, jeweled with an enormous sapphire and a no less enormous topaz; and a bowl, worth 100 florins; sixteen cardinal guests and twenty prelates were given rings and jewels, and twelve young clerks of the papal house and twenty-four sergeants-at-arms received purses filled with florins.

After the fifth service, a great tower with a font whence gushed forth five sorts of choicest wines was carried in; and a tourney was run during the interval between the seventh and eighth courses. Then followed a concert of sweetest music, and dessert was furnished by two trees--one of silver, bearing rarest fruits of all kinds, and the other loaded with sugared fruits of many colors. Various wines were then served, whereupon the master cooks, with thirty assistants, executed dances before the guests. Clement, by this time, having had enough, retired to his chamber, where, lest he might faint for lack of refreshment during the night, wine and spices were brought to him; the entertainment ended with dances and distractions of many kinds.

There is no reason to believe that the Avignon popes, either in their household expenditure or in their personal luxury, were more extravagant than their Roman predecessors or successors. Yet amid all this luxury, strange defects of comfort appear to the modern sense. Windows, as we have seen, were generally covered with wax cloth or linen, carpets were rare, and rushes were strewn on the floors of most of the rooms. From May to November, 1349, more than 300 loads of rushes were supplied for use in the dining-rooms and chambers of the apostolic palace. Subsequently mats were introduced, and in 1352 Pierre de Glotos, mat-maker to the palace of our lord and pope, was paid for 275 cannae of matting for the palace of Avignon and for the palace beyond the Rhone and the new chapel.

[27] From "The Story of Avignon." Published by E.P. Dutton & Co.