Castel Gandolfo, Part 2: Apostolic Palace

The Apostolic Palace of Castel Gandolfo is a 135-acre complex of buildings located in a garden setting overlooking Lake Albano in Italy, just outside of Rome. It includes the principal 17th-century villa, an observatory, and a farmhouse with 75 acres of farmland. The Papal Palace (above), its main structure, has functioned as a museum since October 2016, but for centuries prior to that, it had served as the summer residence and vacation retreat of the Pope. Though on Italian territory, it was thus afforded extraterritorial status as one of the properties of the Holy See pursuant to the Lateran Treaty of 1929, comparable to that of diplomatic missions. As such, it is exempt from Italian taxes and expropriations and the Italian authorities are prohibited from entering it without the consent of the Holy See.

The oldest parts of the castle are said to date back to the 13th century, although it was first acquired by the Vatican in 1596, when the owners (namely, the Savelli family) were unable to pay a debt to the Papacy. The current palace was designed by Swiss-Italian architect Carlo Maderno for Pope Urban VIII, but the adjacent Barberini Gardens occupy the site of a residence dating back to the Roman Emperor Domitian. Since being built, about half of the Popes have used the properties as a summer residence and vacation retreat, except from 1870 to 1929, when the Popes did not leave Vatican City due to a dispute with Italy over territorial claims. However, in 1934 Pope Pius XI had the facilities modernized and the Popes began using the retreat again. Near the end of World War II, under the protection of the Holy See, many Jewish refugees took refuge at the Palace from Allied bombing raids, although over 500 people did die here in one such attack.

Pope Pius XII died at the palace in 1958, as did Pope Paul VI in 1978. Pope John Paul II had a swimming pool built at the Palace (controversially, since the Paparazzi used the opportunity to take photos of him). Pope Benedict XVI, flew to the palace at the conclusion of his papacy, in February 2013, and was joined by Pope Francis for lunch in March before returning to Vatican City in May. Francis has since visited the property twice more, but has never stayed overnight. And in June 2013, he announced that he would not spend the summer in Castel Gandolfo as many of his predecessors had.

In March 2014, the Vatican opened up the Barberini Gardens to paid visitors on escorted tours, but only during morning hours from Monday to Saturday. Then, beginning September 11, 2015, a train that had previously been reserved for use by the pope was rededicated to transport tourists from Vatican City to Castel Gandolfo.  Before the end of the year, products from the farm, previously only available to Vatican employees, were made also available for purchase by the public. In October 2016, the Palace itself was opened for public viewing without having undergone any structural changes.

  • Toured: April 2016

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