There once were years when Italy’s and Europe’s history seemed to converge frequently inside and around Viterbo’s Palazzo dei Papi.
The beautiful 13th-century building welcomed nine Roman popes between 1254 and 1281. It was at a time when Rome had become a dangerous place for the successors to Saint Peter, due to the violent fights between the Guelfs who sided with the French and the Ghibellines who sided with the Germans – a deep geopolitical war that crucially impacted Italian history between the 12th and the 14th centuries.
One of the grand halls in Palazzo dei Papi was seat of the longest conclave in history, which lasted no less than 1,006 days, from November in 1268 to September 1st, 1271: because the twenty voting cardinals were divided by personal interests and family feuds, they simply could not reach an agreement.
During those months, the Lazio city was visited by important political and religious figures who struggled to coax the prelates into doing their duty. Amongst others, Charles I of Anjou, Philip III of France and, most notably, Bonaventure of Bagnoregio, who stigmatized their guilty inertia in his homilies.
The exhausting delay convinced Raniero Gatti, the so-called Capitano del popolo (“People’s Captain”), to express people’s exasperation and opt for a drastic solution: he locked the cardinals in that hall, which after than became known as Conclave Hall (“conclave” comes from the Latin “cum clave”, meaning “[locked] with a key”). That was the beginning of the set of rules that – with only a few minor changes – are still followed today when a new pope is elected.
Of course, the world kept turning even during the record-breaking conclave. In Viterbo, for example, there was a terrible murder: Henry, the Early of Cornwell was murdered by his cousin Guido da Montfort while attending mass at the church of San Silvestro.
Palazzo dei Papi survived all this, and today stands in all its beauty.