Pope gives up another indulgence: His summer palace

The gardens of Castel Gandolfo. Pope Francis is turning Castel Gandolfo into a museum for the public. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna
The gardens of Castel Gandolfo. Pope Francis is turning Castel Gandolfo into a museum for the public. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

The gardens of Castel Gandolfo. Pope Francis is turning Castel Gandolfo into a museum for the public. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

CASTEL GANDOLFO, Italy (RNS) He rejected his sumptuous Vatican apartment and chose a Ford Focus to get around town. Now Pope Francis is giving up the historic summer residence where pontiffs have holidayed for nearly 400 years.

Without ever having spent a night there, the pope ordered the apostolic palace and gardens at Castel Gandolfo, about 15 miles from Rome, be turned into a museum.

It officially opened on Friday (Oct. 21), giving the public an intimate look inside the palace where a succession of popes lived and died.

“It is an event of strong symbolic value because it represents the pastoral policy of this pope,” said Antonio Paolucci, director of the Vatican Museums, which will be responsible for running the Castel Gandolfo museum.

Pope Francis is turning Castel Gandolfo into a museum for the public. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

Pope Francis is turning Castel Gandolfo into a museum for the public. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

“His suburban villa is such a masterpiece of architecture, art and nature that so many of his predecessors lived here,” Paolucci said. “But it does not interest him.”

Since Francis was elected in 2013, he has shaken up the Catholic Church by rejecting the traditional trappings of the papacy and making his home in a simple apartment inside the Santa Marta residence at the Vatican.

He rarely seems to slow down his demanding work schedule, even in the summer months.

While Francis has visited the Castel Gandolfo palace only a couple of times since his election, Saint John Paul II (1978-2005) and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI (2005-2013) often stayed at the hilltop palace. But not all of Francis predecessors felt a strong attachment to the place.

Benedict flew to the palace by helicopter two weeks after he announced his history-making resignation in 2013, and Francis later met him there for private talks soon after he was elected.

This is the first time the public will have the chance to see inside the plush apartment, which includes a private chapel, library and study used by successive popes from the 1600s onwards.

Visitors will also see the bed where Popes Pius XII and Paul VI died and where John Paul II recovered from an assassination attempt in St. Peter’s Square in 1981.

A plush sitting room inside the papal residence at Castel Gandolfo which is to be open to the public.RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

A plush sitting room inside the papal residence, which is open to the public in Castel Gandolfo, Italy. RNS photo by Josephine McKenna

“It will always be a pontifical villa,” said Sandro Barbagallo, curator of the Vatican Museums’ historical collections. “It is only that Pope Francis, with his great generosity, has allowed everyone to see it.”

A former fortress, the palace has been owned by the Holy See since 1596 and has been expanded over the centuries to cover 135 acres.

It was also a refuge for 12,000 local residents who fled some of the bloodiest battles of World War II as Allied troops swept up the Italian peninsula after landing in Anzio in 1944.

The Vatican says some of the displaced were pregnant at the time and as many as 40 women gave birth on the pope’s bed itself bearing offspring dubbed “the pope’s children.”

In 2014, the expansive gardens were opened to visitors, in part to help offset the economic downturn the town had suffered since Francis decided to stay in Rome.

They contain extensive Roman ruins dating back to the reign of Emperor Domitian, who ruled from 81 to 96 A.D. and had a summer villa there. The property also features a working farm that supplies the Vatican with fresh milk, eggs, honey and produce.

Last year a weekly train service was started that allows both the Vatican and Castel Gandolfo to be seen in a daytrip. Visitors can tour the private apartment of the palazzo itself, including the Consistory Room where Pius XII made Angelo Roncalli a cardinal in 1953. Roncalli later became Pope John XXIII.

About the author

Josephine McKenna

Josephine McKenna has more than 30 years' experience in print, broadcast and interactive media. Based in Rome since 2007, she covered the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and election of Pope Francis and canonizations of their predecessors. Now she covers all things Vatican for RNS.


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  • He seems to be setting a better example than previous popes in imitating the humble lifestyle of Jesus.

  • Castel Gandolfo is “higher up, the air is cooler and fresher, making it a destination of choice during sweltering and muggy Roman summers.” ( Meaning the quarters where Pope Francis resides, built in 1996, has modern air conditioning, heating, plumbing. No one has ever described the Vatican papal apartment as “sumptuous.” The bedroom is “spartan.”
    Like the Vatican-owned buildings now being leased to McDonald’s and the Hard Rock Cafe, the men appointed by Pope Francis are profit-oriented in charging admission to Castel Gandolfo. Nothing wrong with honest commerce – it just doesn’t fit the carefully-constructed PR image of the same for-profit US media that has resulted in our two presidential candidates.

  • So what great has he done. Surprising he has not invited Muslim refugees to stay at this place and will shun Christians away.

  • Pope Francis inspires. He is a friend of the homeless. The Pontiff is inviting followers of the poor Jesus not to waste their precious lives, living as artifacts in museums and palaces surrounded by high and formidable compound walls. One does feel those prison-like structures and their inmates belong to the bygone centuries. Turning those magnificent buildings into public museums is a wonderful initiative. Long live Pope Francis.

  • Why doesn’t he turn it into living quarters for all the “immigrants” he insists should be taken in by countries who can ill afford to house and feed them? The catholic church is rolling in the dough. I think it can swing it.

  • He has always been a very hard working man and I think he senses that he does not have much time left. His personal character is one that feels that one should not waist time in trivial and self gratifying activities when there is so much to be done in the Lord’s vineyard. Great example for our so called modern world.

  • It seems a perfectly intelligent thing to do from one perspective, though in accordance with other points of view, as a form of excess real estate, perhaps a more pragmatic usage of the land and structures could be utilized than conversion to a museum. The fact that it contains a working farm is encouraging. The Church in its spiritual conception and mandate does not require a physical museum, its museum should consist of the active life and acts of Christian compassion, charity, and the propagation of the Gospel..

  • That Frankie sure is a pious fellow. I wonder how much he earned in the treasury of merit for this one.

  • Too bad Frankie doesn’t have a warm, loving Italian women in his life to keep him centered! Such a woman would insist that he keep the summer villa so they and the kids could get out of town and recharge. The two of them could write some fresh material about the joys and blessings of a good marriage to share with the church.

    But no, this guy’s married to his work!. He’s preoccupied with restoring the Catholic church’s coffers that have been nearly depleated by the pedofile lawsuits in the US and Europe. Marketing the museum gets thos adission fees flowing! This “free money” will help rebuild the Vatican’s credit rating. No doubt he’s bracing for the far-flung outposts of the Catholic world that have yet to discover the legal protections afforded them. Any day now they’ll discover the 20th century, and start filing lawsuits on behalf of those who suffered at the hands of the pedofiles when they were young.