Il Palazzo dei Papi

April 18, 2013 / Places
Viterbo, Lazio

palazzopapiviterbo1You begin to wonder whether someone had a play for theater in mind and built this palazzo as the set. Rewind back to the mid-12th century however and it does begin to read like a dramatic script…

On the one hand are Fredericks I and II from Germany, Holy Roman Emperors, who want the temporal power of Christendom, which they detain, to carry the same weight as its spiritual power; theirs is the “Ghibelline” faction. On the other is the Sancta Romana Ecclesia, i.e. the Papacy, Holy See, whose spiritual power’s primacy has been the way things are since time immemorial, and that isn’t just going to roll over to some German upstart. They and their allies are called the Guelfs. The two sides are having at it in central Italy, and not only. For 100+ years both sides bolster their fortifications, build towns, forge alliances and create power bases.

palazzopapiviterbo2The front line of this mostly cold-war is Viterbo, which is squashed between the two and for decades sees nothing but mass confusion, rulers alternating constantly, and constant attacks by one side and then the other too! Even Viterbesi families are split internally… something has to give.

Sure enough, the Cardinals’ meeting being held in the Palazzo dei Papi to elect a new Pope in 1268 lasts THREE years, yielding no result. That’s it, enough! Basta!… the Viterbesi are completely fed up at this point, and so they decide to take matters into their own hands.

They tear the roof off the palazzo to let the cold and rain in, leave nothing but water and bread for sustenance, and lock the fighting Guelf and Ghibelline cardinals inside! Sure enough, the cardinals elect a Pope in a snap… and things finally return to somewhat normal conditions.

Ever wonder where the word conclave comes from? In this incident, the cardinals were clausi cum clave, (literally, “closed in by key”), and the word and practice have been used ever since.

With history like this, who needs fiction? One look at this beautiful building is all you need.



by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

8 Responses to “Il Palazzo dei Papi”

  1. I am grateful for this note as I never really understood the difference between the Guelfs and the Gibellines. Now I know, ‘in quattro e quattr’otto’.

  2. Another concise, clear, insiteful, and immensely entertaining note, GB – bravo and grazie!

  3. francesco costa

    è un luogo molto suggestivo, soprattutto al chiaro di luna, e il tuo pezzo è fantastico! grazie, f.

  4. mary jane cryan

    ahh, you should see the piazza with the backdrop of the open loggia when the Tuscia Opera Festival happens in July. Imagine Swan Lake, the Russian ballerine and the music in this setting.

  5. Charnee Smit

    I, too, have never understood before what the Guelphs and Ghibillines were fighting about, so this was a great help. And a darned good story, too!


Leave a Reply