Castel Gandolfo and the Popes
L'Osservatore Romano

A brief historical outline

With the Lateran Pacts in 1929, Italy recognized the full ownership by the Holy See of the Pontifical Palace of Castel Gandolfo. Later, Pope Pius XI purchased orchards near Albano for a small farm.

Today the Pontifical Villas at Castel Gandolfo comprise about 55 hectares; the garden covers 30, while 25 are farm land. The whole complex is extraterritorial. The Villa's property includes the Papal Palace (and the "Specola", the Vatican Observatory), the Barberini Palace, apartments for 21 employees, an electrical plant, offices, farm buildings and stables. There are also premises in the Villa Cybo for the Religious Teachers Filippini and their school, and two cloistered convents occupied by the Poor Clares and the Basilian Nuns. The parish house assigned to the Salesians stands next to the Church of St Thomas of Villanova in the square.

The Administration of the Pontifical Villas sees to the maintenance of the gardens and to all the farming activities, handling the management of the entire property and assuring all the necessary services for the Holy Father's visits.

The Pontifical Villas and their land stand on the site of the Albanum Domitiani, the magnificent summer residence of the Emperor Domitian (81-96 AD) and Roman ruins can still be seen today. The Emperor Hadrian spent time here while his residence in Tivoli was being completed and Marcus Aurelius (161-180) came here briefly.

In the ensuing period, the imperial villa began to deteriorate rapidly. Monuments were soon deprived of their works of art, buildings were systematically demolished and Roman marble and other materials were reused in the new buildings of the first urban settlement at Albano.

The Emperor Constantine (306-337) conferred on the Basilica of St John the Baptist, today the Cathedral of Albano, the "possessio Tiberii Caesaris": Domitian's villa.

Apart from documents that mainly concern matters of inheritance, there are no historical records of this area until the 12th century. What is recorded, however, is the continuous ransacking of marble and works of art over the years, especially for Orvieto Cathedral.

Around the year 1200, the Gandolfi family of Genoa (from which Castel Gandolfo takes its name) built a castle on the hilltop with high crenellated walls and a small courtyard. Surrounded by a mighty citadel that made it practically impregnable, it later became the property of the Savelli family who owned it for about three centuries.

In July 1596, in the pontificate of Clement VIII Aldobrandini (1592-1605), the Apostolic Chamber took possession of Castel Gandolfo and Rocca Priora with the Bull known as "Congregazione dei Baroni" which obliged the Savelli family, who had failed to repay a debt of 150,000 ecus, to hand the property over. Castel Gandolfo was was then declared a possession of the Holy See and permanently incorporated by a consistorial decree dated 27 May 1604 as part of the temporal domain of the Church.

Years later, at the request of the community of Castel Gandolfo, Pope Paul V Borghese (1605-1621), restored the aqueduct that once channeled to the town the waters of the Malafitto springs, today known as Palazzolo. This Pope also tried to improve the area by reclaiming the marshlands around Lake Turno, as a marble plaque in front of the Papal Palace recalls.

The first pope to use the palace as a summer residence was Urban VIII Barberini (1623-1644). He first went there as pope in the spring of 1626. He had commissioned Carlo Maderno and his assistants, to complete the restoration work on the palace. The small palace garden (Giardino del Moro) was laid out at this time. It still exists today with paths bordered by myrtle hedges. Also at this time, Simone Lagi, a Florentine, was commissioned to decorate the private chapel, the small adjacent oratory and the sacristy. Urban VIII added two charming tree-lined avenues, known as the "Galleria di sopra" and the "Galleria di sotto", which skirt the Villa Barberini, connecting Castel Gandolfo with Albano.

Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667) completed the Papal Residence with the new facade on the square and the wing extending towards the sea with its great gallery designed by Bernini.

Pope Clement XIV Ganganelli (1769-1774) enlarged the palace in March 1773 by acquiring the adjacent "Villa Cybo". In 1717, Cardinal Camillo Cybo obtained from the architect Francesco Fontana, "as his noble home and villa", the building that Fontana had originally designed for himself. The Cardinal subsequently acquired about three hectares of land opposite this building which he transformed into a splendid garden, richly ornamented with marble, statues and fountains.

The sumptuous villa, however, had one great flaw: the palace and garden were separated by a public avenue, the "Galleria di sotto". The cardinal's intention was to connect them by means of an overpass but this project had to wait. Cardinal Cybo's heirs sold the villa to Duke Livio Odescalchi of Bracciano who in turn sold it at the same price (18,000 ecus) to Pope Clement XIV.

In 1870, the end of the Papal States marked a period of decline for the Papal Residence at Castel Gandolfo. For the next 60 years the popes never set foot outside the Vatican. An Italian law, the "Guarantegie", ensured that the Palace at Castel Gandolfo would enjoy the same extraterritorial status as the Vatican and the Lateran.

It was only after the signing of the Lateran Treaty between the Holy See and Italy in 1929 that resolved the "Roman Question", that Castel Gandolfo once again became the Papal Summer Residence.

The pontifical estates assumed their present dimensions with the the acquisition of the "Villa Barberini". On this property new gardens were created and among them was the "Belvedere".

After 1929, important restoration and consolidation work was undertaken to connect the three different villas — the "Giardino del Moro", the "Villa Cybo" and the "Villa Barberini" — by means of an overpass.

Finally, in 1934, the Observatory entrusted to the Jesuits was moved from the Vatican to Castel Gandolfo because of the light pollution in Rome that interfered with the observation of the heavens.

In the summer of 1623, Cardinal Maffeo Barberini was elected Pope. He took the name of Urban VIII (1623-1644). Because of its stunning position and view, and his belief that it was the healthiest place in the area south-east of Rome known as the "Castelli Romani", it was only natural that Urban VIII should choose Castel Gandolfo for his summer residence. He built a modest home at Castel Gandolfo close to the castle walls on the top floor of the tower which stands to this day next to the Roman gate. His stables can still be seen.

He wished, as his biographer, Andrea Nicoletti wrote, "to ensure that popes had the convenience of spending the summer in their own palaces, rather than having to stay in other people's homes".

After 1626, Urban VIII returned to the Villa faithfully twice a year for another eleven years for periods of two or three weeks at a time. Above all he enjoyed going for walks which he alternated with long rides through the woods. During his stay he would continue to receive in audience ministers and ambassadors. However, after a serious illness in 1637, he preferred to remain in Rome.

Urban VIII's successor, Pope Innocent X Pamphilj (1644-1655), never set foot in Castel Gandolfo. In fact during his 10-year pontificate he rarely left Rome.

Pope Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667) liked to spend from 20 days to a month in Castel Gandolfo at least twice a year, in spring and in autumn. He was particularly sensitive to the beauty of the lake and of the surrounding woodlands which he felt were conducive to meditation and silence. He took long strolls under the chestnut and ilex trees that lined the paths and also enjoyed sailing on the lake. He commissioned the architect Sernini to build the local parish church, which he dedicated to St Thomas of Villanova, the Archbishop of Valencia, whom he canonized in 1658.

Subsequent to the death of Pope Alexander VII, for 44 years no popes left Rome to stay at their summer residence. The sole exception was Pope Innocent XII Pignatelli (1691-1700), who spent the night of 27 April 1697 there while on his way to Anzio and Nettuno. It proved to be a foggy, rainy evening and the place seemed so damp that he was put off and never returned.

Pope Clement XI Albani (1700-1721) may have spent the first nine years of his pontificate without ever leaving Rome. In May 1710, however, after a serious illness, his doctors advised him to go to Castel Gandolfo for a period of convalescence. There he recovered and changed his habits, returning every year until 1715.

Pope Clement XI conferred on Castel Gandolfo the title of "Villa Pontificia" [Pontifical Villa] during his first visit. This official papal recognition was to last as long as the Papal States survived, allowing the citizens of Castel Gandolfo the privilege of coming under the special administrative and judiciary jurisdiction of the Prefect of the Apostolic Palace rather than the local administration. The Pope was particularly attentive to the people here and his visits were characterized by the friendly relationship he established with them, and particularly with the poorest of them to whom he gave many privileges.

Moreover, it was during the pontificate of Clement XI that Castel Gandolfo was restored after a long period of neglect and the town, which had grown over the years, was embellished. A plaque set in the wall at the beginning of the main street today testifies to the many projects implemented by this Pope for the benefit of the townspeople.

After Clement XI, the "Villa Pontificia" was abandoned by the popes for 25 years until June 1741, when Pope Benedict XIV Lambertini (1740-1758) went there a year after his election. He was one of the pontiffs who was fondest of Castel Gandolfo. His visits there had an aura of great simplicity, far removed from the pomp and circumstance of his predecessors. In response to insistent requests from his assistants that he receive visitors, he would reply that he preferred to see them in Rome.

As part of its restoration and embellishment he entrusted its decoration to Pier Leone Grezzi, responsible for the airy paintings in the Alexander VII Gallery of rustic scenes and views of the Alban Hills, and the Loggia delle Benedizioni with the beautiful clock above it, built in 1749.

Clement XIII Rezzonico (1758-1769) first went to Castel Gandolfo in 1759, at the advice of his doctors, for a change of air. He found the place so congenial that he returned for months at a time, until 1765. when, an escalating number of problems prevented him from returning.

His Successor, Pope Clement XIV Ganganelli (1769-1774), regularly spent the autumn months in Castel Gandolfo. Lively and exuberant, he constantly sought amusement. When staying at Castel Gandolfo he did not only stroll about the estate. He would mount his horse and "once he had left the inhabited part of town behind him, he would break into a gallop so fast that none of his escorts could keep up with him". But in 1771, having twice fallen from his horse and damaged his shoulder, his family convinced him to give up his favourite sport. This prompted him to spend time enlarging the Pontifical Villas and in 1773 he added the "Villa Cybo".

In spite of his 25-year pontificate Clement XIV's Successor, Pope Pius VI Braschi, never even visited his summer residence. His pontificate was marked by a tragic event on 27 February 1798, when the inhabitants of the "Castelli Romani", loyal to the Pope, fought with the troops of Joachim Murat. After a hard fight the loyal rebels took refuge in the Papal Palace, which was then attacked, besieged and looted by the French troops.

Pope Pius VI Chiaromonti (1800-1823) was elected to the See of Peterin Venice. Three years later he took possession of the Papal Residence in Castel Gandolfo, and subsequently undertook the necessary restoration. He also had it refurbished and returned there in 1804 and 1805. When Napoleon's troops invaded the Papal States they imprisoned the Pope and prevented him from returning to Castel Gandolfo. Released on 17 March 1814, Pope Pius VI was at last able to return to his villa.

Pope Leo XII Della Genga (1823-1829) who succeeded Pius vi, showed a total lack of interest in Castel Gandolfo. He went to the town only once, on 21 October 1824. On this occasion he only visited the church in the square and did not even set foot in the papal residence. His Successor, Pope Pius Castiglione (1829-1830), never visited Castel Gandolfo.

As for Pope Gregory XVI Cappellari (1831-1846), he almost always spent the month of October at Castel Gandolfo. His visits were marked by the simple lifestyle of a Camaldolese monk.

Bl. Pope Pius IX Mastai Ferretti (1846-1878) stayed only briefly in Castle Gandolfo at various times of year. In spite of the fact that he preferred life in the city, the inhabitants of Castel Gandolfo cherish fond memories of Pope Pius ambling around the town, entering their homes, checking to see if the pots on the hearth had enough food in them and, when necessary, handing out generous sums. Another characteristic of Pius IX was his habit of receiving the faithful in audience at Castel Gandolfo with unprecedented ease. Times were changing rapidly and travelling conditions were so much improved that many pilgrim groups arrived, even from abroad.

Pius IX stayed in Castel Gandolfo for the last time from 28 to 31 May 1869; he had come to venerate the miraculous Crucifix of Nemi. On 20 September 1870, Italian troops marched into Rome and the Pope chose to retreat behind the Vatican walls.

From 1870 and 1929 with the signing of the Lateran Treaty, the popes remained attached to Castel Gandolfo, although they never left the Vatican. After 1870, for example, Pope Pius IX offered hospitality there to two cloistered communities, the Basilian nuns from the Polish part of Russia, and the Poor Clares, who were obliged to leave their convent in Albano because of the confiscation of church property.

Pope Leo XIII Pecci (1878-1903) fondly referred to the Leo IV Tower in the Vatican where he sometimes stayed in the summer as the "little Castel Gandolfo".

At the beginning of the 20th century, Pope St Pius X Sarto (1903-1914) and Pope Benedict XV Della Chiesa (1914-1922) each constructed a building at Castel Gandolfo to house its neediest inhabitants. Pius X also arranged for an apartment to be restored in the Papal Palace for his Secretary of State, Cardinal Raffaele Merry del Val, who spent time there in August and September, in the years from 1904 to 1907.

Pope Pius XI Ratti (1922-1939) was the first pope of the modern era to have stayed in Castel Gandolfo. He had the old residence restored and spent two months a year there, with the exception of the years 1934-38, when he stayed for as long as six months a year. Pius XI had a private chapel built in the papal apartments and had it decorated' with a reproduction of a painting of Our Lady of Czestochowa, a gift from the Polish bishops. He also had two side walls frescoed by Jan Rosen, with two episodes from Polish history, one from 1655 and the other from 1920. Pius XI had spent time in Poland between 1918-21, first as a visitor and then as Apostolic Nuncio.

Towards the end of his life, it was from the Palace at Castel Gandolfo that this Pope spoke out repeatedly against the doctrines of the German National Socialist party on racism, going so far on one occasion as to offer his life in exchange for peace in a memorable radio message dated 29 September 1938.

Pope Pius XII Pacelli (1939-1958) went to Castel Gandolfo during the first year of his pontificate. It was here that he promulgated his first Encyclical, Summi Pontificatus. It was also from Castel Gandolfo that On 24 August 1939 he broadcast a desperate appeal to all nations: "Nothing is lost with peace: everything can be lost with war". But his appeal fell on deaf ears. He did not return to Castel Gandolfo, which became a safe haven for the local population during the Second World War. From 8 September 1943, the inhabitants of Castel Gandolfo and the neighbouring towns took refuge in the pontifical estates, where they could benefit from the privilege of extraterritoriality.

Nevertheless, after the landings at Anzio by the Allied Forces on 22 January 1944, the area became a war zone and the inhabitants of Castel Gandolfo and the vicinity once again flocked to the gates of the pontifical estates. At least 12,000 people are estimated to have sought refuge there during this emergency. They remained until the liberation of Rome on 4 June 1944. At this time the papal apartment was reserved for women about to give birth: 40 children were born there. The many victims of the bombing on the fringes of the extraterritorial area included 18 cloistered nuns, Basilians and Poor Clares. They were killed on r February 1944.

It was only on the 22 August 1946 that the Pope finally returned to Castel Gandolfo on a regular basis, staying there sometimes for up to five months at a time. In fact, excluding the war years it is safe to say that Pope Pius XII spent almost a third of his pontificate there and at dawn, on 9 October 1958, he became the first pope ever to die in this residence.

On 28 October 1958, shortly after his election, Blessed Pope John XXIII Roncalli (1958-1963) went to Castel Gandolfo. A plaque in the parish church there recalls his desire to restore the church and crypt to their original state. Pope John XXIII also inaugurated two traditions at Castel Gandolfo: the recitation of the Angelus on Sunday mornings in the palace courtyard, and Mass in the parish to honour the Feast of the Assumption.

Pope Paul VI Montini (1963-1978) went to Castel Gandolfo at the beginning of his pontificate, on 5 August 1963. Thereafter he used it as his summer residence from mid-July to mid-September every year. Despite his reserved character, he built up friendly relations with the town's inhabitants. After the recitation of the Angelus on 13 August 1972 he said: "We too enjoy this God-given gift, by breathing the fresh air, admiring the beauty of our natural surroundings... and by seeking here to restore our lack of energy, which is never enough and is now even somewhat depleted". Paul VI moreover, in the Holy Year 1975, introduced the practice of travelling to and from the Vatican by helicopter to avoid the heavy traffic.

He bequeathed to Castel Gandolfo a modern pontifical elementary school, two churches, St Paul with its pastoral; complex and La Madonna del Lago.

When his health failed in July 1978, he moved to Castel Gandolfo in the hope that he would benefit from the fresh air. But he died there on Sunday, 6 August.

John Paul I Luciani, elected on 26 August 1978, was unable in his all-too-brief pontificate to visit Castel Gandolfo.

Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, Archbishop of Krakow, went there on the afternoon of 8 October of that same year in search of a few tranquil hours. Eight days later on the afternoon of 16 October 1978, he was elected Pope. It was not long before John Paul II returned to the town whose inhabitants had mourned the deaths of two popes. On the afternoon of 25 October they welcomed the new Polish Pope enthusiastically and he called them "fellow-citizens".


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
3 August 2011, page 8

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