Built by the Avignon Popes, Palais des Papes is the Largest Gothic Palace in Europe:
Avignon’s largest and most dominant monument is the Palais des Papes, residence of the Sovereign Pontiffs during the Avignon Papacy. Situated in the centre of the city, the Palace of the Popes is the largest Gothic palace in Europe.
Although Avignon became the residence of the Popes from 1309, it was Benedict XII (the third of the Avignon popes) and his successor Clement VI, who had the Palace of the Popes built as one of the largest fortresses of the Middle Ages.
The Palace comprises two distinct sections – the more simple section built by Benedict XII, known as the Palais Vieux (Old Palace) and Clement VI’s more flamboyant Palais Neuf (New Palace). The building was enormously expensive and by the time it was completed, it occupied an area of 11,000 m² and had consumed much of the papacy’s income.
In all seven popes reigned in Avignon until 1377 when the papal court returned to Rome.
Although the Palace remained under papal control for over 350 years after the departure of the popes, it gradually deteriorated. Then came the French Revolution and it was seized and sacked by revolutionary forces and subsequently taken over by Napoleon’s army. In 1906, it was made into a National Museum.
Visiting the Palace of the Popes
Although much of the luxurious trappings of 14th century court life have been destroyed or looted, the building’s architecture and paintings that are in the Palace of the Popes today are incomparable.
To get a better understanding of the Palais des Papes, start your visit at the Musée de l’Oeuvre. This museum in the Palace of the Popes introduces the visitor to the Palace. Illustrations, interactive models, archaeological items and reproductions show and explain, in a fun way, the evolution of the building’s construction and its fabulous decorations. The “Musée de l’Oeuvre” also answers visitors’ questions about the popes’ stay in Avignon.
The second part of the museum covers the history of the Palace from the 15th to the 20th centuries. This part of the museum is located in the section built by Pope Clement VI. Two rooms display the history of the Palace from the end of Pope Benedict XII’s reign to the 20th century. It includes explanation of the drastic changes after the French Revolution, the use of the Palace as barracks, then a prison prior to restoration and re-use of the Honour Courtyard for the Avignon Festival.
The Palace of the Popes is now home the Avignon’s conference centre. For those who prefer a guided tour of the Palais des Papes, check with the Avignon Tourist Office who run some English language tours.