Many years ago, I lived in France for a short while. I went there, quite accidentally, during a very difficult period of my life. It was a time of enormous personal disenchantment and distress that seemed not merely unending, but perhaps simply the natural course of things — life as it really is. My European travels, and my life in France in particular, ended neither the disenchantment nor the distress, but changed my perspective in subtle and permanent ways.
Long afterward, it seemed to me that France, in particular, southeastern France, had beckoned to me as if offering a strong and heroic hand, uplifting me and setting me properly on my feet so that I could live again, the vicissitudes of life notwithstanding.
Though I lived in Grenoble, and studied at the University, the totem I took from that period of my life was one I found at Avignon at the Palais du Papes, on a holiday trip. That’s the Palace of the Popes on the right, the facade hideously compromised (as it most certainly was not during my visit) by the sort of banner that is now mandatory for all historic and cultural attractions. (Else how would anyone know to visit? But I digress . . . )
The multiple popes of Avignon owed their existence (and their exile), unsurprisingly, to political disagreements, in this case one between Pope Boniface VIII and France’s King Philip IV. In 1305 Philip oversaw the election of a French Pope; Clement V was the first of seven popes who lived at Avignon in corruption and luxurious glory. A good run-down on the various French popes — and two antipopes — can be found on the Avignon Popes page from Provence & Beyond. Provence-Hideaway offers a quick gloss of the history of the Papal Territories, with commentary on the popes.
The Palace itself is a fortress, buttressed everywhere with the thick walls and all the amenities necessary to a city-castle fortification. It is as magnificent and overwhelming as any palace ought to be, and proof enough that if papacies fail the test of time, wanton expenditure and substantial architecture sometimes does not.
The tiled floors are beautiful, and it’s easy, now, to find pictures on the Internet of the lavish bedroom suites and Pope Clement VI’s magnificent study, with its life-like hunting frescoes. But this munificence is not what remains most strikingly in my memory.
Instead, what I remember most about Avignon is a small room, almost, in the scale of things at Avignon, an afterthought. I suspect that it must be only about ten feet by ten feet; if memory serves, there is a step with a small doorway for an entranceway. The room was empty when I was there, and few visitors chose to enter it; perhaps it felt uncomfortably intimate after the grand passageways and halls we’d already traversed.
But I was enchanted by the small scale and the intimacy which seemed so incongruous. The walls looked to me like Paradise; I know now that they were probably hunting scenes, and included bird cages, rendering the scene less than heavenly for the fauna involved, but in this dark, cool room a blue sky stretched expansively; branches and vines straggled across the stone walls bringing them to life like a welcoming, accessible forest.
I loved the idea of the pope of the moment retreating from his very public life, and even from the luxuries so coveted by each and their ilk, into this small, contemplative chamber, so much better suited to human economy than the impressive surrounding suites. The room may have been windowless, but it seemed to have no boundaries at all. As in Paradise, perhaps, one could imagine living here forever, never missing a more tangible, terrestrial world. It seemed to me that one pope, at least, must have found a measure of personal peace in this room.
I found in that small room a sustaining sense of the infinite, and an enduring, quite literal, illustration of the of the nature of human imagination. I was astonished that a pope’s private cell could seem a perfect refuge from an overwhelming world — but that, in a microcosm, was what France was like for me. That sense of refuge was due partly, of course, to the seductive nature of travel, when there is no everyday and the most ordinary aspects of life seem fresh and extraordinary.
Decades later, though, I still recall with amazement not only how completely my life in France shaped the person I would become, but also the sense of peace and joy evoked in me by the artistry of men 700 years dead yet living still.
Map of France from Just France
Photo of the Palais du Papes from Bonjour La France
Photo of bedroom suite from Virtual Tourist
Bird cages detail from the University of Utah’s art site