03 March 2013

LIFE: On to Castel Gandolfo

CHIAVARI, Italy – Pope Benedict XVII retired on Thursday, 28 February 2013. After saying his goodbyes he flew off to the pontifical estate in Castel Gandolfo, a town of less than 8,000 people located 15 miles south of Rome in the area known as the Castelli Romani. He will stay there until his apartment in Vatican City has been refurbished.

 Pope Benedict Announcing his Retirement
The pontifical estate in Castel Gandolfo is really a town within a town. It’s large complex, larger than Vatican City, and is made up of villas and buildings that have been cobbled together over the centuries, including the Barberini palace and the Villa Cybo.   

It was Cardinal Maffeo Barberini, who became Pope Urban VIII in 1623, who first decided to make Castel Gandolfo the official papal summer residence.     In 1626 he commissioned the construction of a palace suitable for the needs and rank of a pope. The result was the Barberini Palace, a sumptuous palazzo where papal audiences are held, in addition to housing the pope’s private library, multiple salas and service rooms, three chapels and a vast collection of art.

 Castel Gandolfo
On the ground floor there is a loggia and a courtyard where the pope receives visitors on Sundays, plus a gallery wing designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and decorated by the Italian rococo painter, Pier Leone Ghezzi. Other works by Ghezzi are in the Loggia of the Blessings and the Gallery of Benedict XIV, as well as the Sala of the Swiss Guards, the Sala of the Confraternity of the Palafrenieri, the Clement XIV dining room and the throne room. 

Pope Clement XIV enlarged the pontifical estate in March 1773 when he bought the nearby "Villa Cybo" from the heirs of Cardinal Camillo Cybo.  Cardinal Cybo owned the luxurious villa for almost 60 years, after having obtained it from the architect Francesco Fontana, who designed it for himself. The Cardinal then bought the three hectares of land across from the villa and had them transformed into a magnificent garden, richly decorated with marble statues and fountains.  

 Town Gate
The complex called Villa Cybo is large, large enough to provide space for the nuns of the Maestre Pie Filippini and their school, and has two adjoining cloistered convents which house the Poor Clare and the Basilian Nuns. The Vatican Observatory is also located there.  

The pontifical estate includes 55 hectares (A hectare is about 2.471 acres­) of which 30 are formal gardens and 25 are used for farming. The farm was Pope Pius XI’s idea. He had it stocked with cows, chickens and bees, and hired a gardener – most likely more than one - to tend to the vegetable garden.  A few years later the Vatican bought the apricot and peach orchards nearby and had several greenhouses built.  

 Corner of the Papal Gardens

Today a large administrative office within the papal complex oversees maintenance of the gardens, conservatories and arboretum, as well as the farm which produces fruit, vegetables, olive oil, eggs and milk, and the animal husbandry activities conducted on the premises. It also manages the harvesting, production and sale of flowers and is responsible for the purchase and maintenance of the equipment used in all these activities.

In addition, the office handles the management of the properties belonging to the villas and ensures that the water works, electrical plants, heating system and telephone system all function efficiently.  The Administration is in charge of the parking facilities for the villas and the automobile garage, along with the farm machinery. Finally, it assures that all essential services are provided for the Holy Father during his stays at Castel Gandolfo.   

Entrance to the Pontifical Estates
Perhaps the most dramatic period at the pontifical estates came during World War II. By virtue of the Lateran Treaty of 1929, the Vatican and its properties were declared neutral in international relations and therefore exempt from occupation and bombing.

When the Allied Forces landed in Anzio in 1944 and the area around the town of Castel Gandolfo became an active war zone, an estimated 12,000 people sought refuge at the pontifical estate which, as a property of the Vatican, was protected under the Treaty. The estate soon developed into an enormous refugee camp and the papal apartment, once the sanctuary of the pope, became a maternity ward where mothers could give birth to their babies. It is estimated that at least 40 children were born there.  

 A Room with a View
The outskirts of the estates, however, were not under the protection of the Vatican and many people were killed. Among these, 18 cloistered nuns from the Basilian and Poor Clare convents died on 1 February 1944, and on 10 February, another 500 people were killed and many more wounded when the College of “Propaganda Fide” was bombarded.

Visiting Castel Gandolfo today there are no signs of those difficult by-gone days. The buildings are intact, the Bernini fountain in the main piazza is still gurgling, Romans are still coming here on the weekends just as they have for centuries, and religious pilgrims will continue to flock here by the thousands. But most of all it will continue to be the one and only place the pope can find privacy until his permanent home at the Convent of the Mater Ecclesiae just behind the Vatican is renovated.

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