Friday, 16 March 2012

The "Old" Vatican Palace

Because the St Peter’s or Constantinian Basilica fulfilled such an important role in the history of the Christian Church, it became necessary for the popes to have a residence near it from the earliest times (TCE). Important as it was, however, St Peter’s initially functioned as a “cemetry church in the open country-side” and accommodation around it in its early history consisted only of some houses and a monastery for senior functionaries and members of the clergy. It was actually the Lateran Palace on the eastern edge of Rome that served as the first official residence of the popes from the 4th century (DRCb 91).

One of the earliest known residential constructions at the Vatican – a building that adjoined St. Peter's – was begun by Pope Symmachus (498-514) (TCE). The Laurentian schism compelled this pope to take up residence in the Vatican from 501 to 506, and he built two episcopia (or bishops’ houses) next to the Basilica (DRCb 91). Afterwards, in the course of time, the area between the Basilica’s portico and the Vatican Hill would develop into a palatium (TCE), namely the Palatium Caruli that Charlemagne added as a residence in 781. Popes Leo III (795-816) and Gregory IV (827-844) also constructed additional buildings (DRCb 91).

Further developments were made possible when Pope Leo IV (847-855) had a turreted wall constructed around St Peter’s and the complex of early buildings that had accreted around it. This became known as the Leonine City, which was in fact “a secure and fortified suburb” (DRCa 19, b 91). Pope Eugene III (1145-1153) eventually built a palatium novum or new palace that formed part of the “City” (DRCa 19). This palace possibly grew from an enlargement of one of Pope Symmachus’s episcopia. (In the Renaissance, these episcopia had to make way for the new Basilica and Piazza (DRCb 91).)

Up to this point, as mentioned earlier, the popes had resided mainly in the Lateran Palace, but later Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) was compelled to take up residence in the Leonine City because of violent struggles between political factions in Rome. He enlarged Eugene III’s palace by adding administrative quarters and accommodation for the clergy, and he also increased security by raising a second turreted wall inside the one that Leo IV had put up (DRCa 19).

The Leonine City in later years (Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882)

Vatican building activities were dormant again until the time of Pope Nicholas III (1277-1280), who decided to move permanently into the Vatican a year after his accession and constructed a residential palace. This residence assumed almost the role of a citadel in the Leonine City since it was fortified and connected to Innocent III’s second (“inner”) turreted wall. It was even equipped with granaries and cisterns. Its architects had intended it as a four-cornered structure with angle-turrets around the current area of the Cortile del Pappagallo (or Cortile dei Pappagalli). Unable to complete his own palatium novum in a short reign of only three years, Pope Nicholas III had nevertheless initiated the construction of this fortified residence upon the first little “hill” on the north side of St Peter’s (known as the Mons Saccorum) and he was at least able to finish part of the east wing and the entire south wing. (The second "hill", the Mons Sancti Aegidii, will be touched on below.) (DRCa 19-20).

Map of the Leonine City (Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882)

The first, or earliest, section of the south wing consisted of Innocent III’s* fortification known as the “small barracks”, as well as the tower. It is to this section that Nicholas III attached the second part (aula secunda) of the Sala Ducale, through which one went into the large first hall (aula prima, now the Royal Hall). One had to cross the Royal Hall to reach the Cappella Magna (the predecessor of the Sistine Chapel) (DRCa 19-20). The graphic below shows the first and second halls of the Sala Ducale (number 4). In the source cited as JB 69 (see the posting "Borgia Apartments: Sala dei Pontefici"), these two parts of the Sala Ducale are indicated as the "Second Hall or First Sala Ducale” and “Third Hall or Second Sala Ducale” (the Sala Reale being the “Great or First Hall”). In the time of the Baroque, the two Sala Ducale Halls were“unified” through Bernini’s designs (there is a map in DRCa 21).
(*The source contains a typographical mistake by saying “II”.)

Halls next to the St Peter's Basilica
1.  The Sacristy of the Sistine Chapel.
2.  The Sistine Chapel, where the Cappella Magna used to stand.
3.  The Sala Regia.
4.  The first and second halls of the Sala Ducale.
5.  The Cortile dei Pappagalli (or Cortile del Pappagallo).
6.  Cortile del Maresciallo.
7.  Courtyard where important visitors entered.
8.  Northeast end of St Peter’s Basilica.

The main palace facade, in the time of Pope Nicholas III, looking out on Rome, bordered on the hortus secretus or “secret garden” (which eventually became the present Cortile di San Damaso). From the outset, the facade had two superimposed loggias (later replaced by those of Bramante and Raphael). At this stage, the palace “had only two storeys (above the portico in the ground floor); that means it extended up to the floor-level of Raphael’s loggie”. It appears that Bramante did not destroy the medieval portico completely but built his own above the [original] one on the ground floor (DRCa 20; DRCb 91, 94).

Pope Nicholas III also gained possession of the vineyards on the northern side of his palace. These vineyards, extending up the hill to the Mons sancti Aegidii, where Innocent VIII’s Belvedere currently stands, were transformed into a garden known as the pomerium, which was surrounded by walls (DRCb 94).

In the period between the reign of Nicholas III (1277-1280) and that of Nicholas V (1447-1455), three other building projects were undertaken (DRCa 20):

  • the turris scalarum (a fortification tower at the southwest corner of the Corte del Maresciallo) containing stairs leading to the buildings at the foot of the hill (i.e. eastwards; demolished under Paul III (1534-1549));
  • the cappella parva sancti Nicolai (also demolished under Paul III with a view to widening the Scala del Maresciallo);
  • the extension of the east (“facade”) wing of the palace (which was undertaken during two different periods), and the loggia of the wing (the chapel and second section were probably done under Pope Boniface VIII (1294-1303)).
The east facade wing terminated in a massive tower, which, as DRC notes, can be seen in Heemskerck’s drawing (Web.1). The area now covered by the Papal Hall or “Sala dei Pontefici” on the first floor, and what is now the “Sala di Constantino” on the second floor, formed part of the east-wing extension. Both rooms were panelled (DRCa 20; DRCb 94).

Regarding the cappella parva sancti Nicolai, Setton has the following to say:
Many events relating to the history of the papacy during the Renaissance as well as the contemporary texts can be understood only with some knowledge of the Vatican Palace, in which connection the reader should consult some such plan as that given by Celani in his edition of Burchard’s diary (Liber notarum, I. opp p. 9). Unfortunately Celani’s plan, which has been copied and adapted more than once, is inaccurate. It fails to show the old Chapel of S. Niccolò da Bari across the aula magna sive prima (the present Sala Regia) from the Sistina. The Chapel of S. Niccolò, also known as the Cappella del SS. Sacramento, was demolished in 1538 when the space it had occupied was used for the descent of the (present) stairway to the Cortile del Maresciallo. Also the Cappello Paolina (named after Paul III, who built it), shown by Celani as existing "ai tempi di Innocenzo VIII", was not constructed until after the removal of the Chapel of S. Niccolò, which it replaced as the papal electoral chamber. The errors in Pastor’s Geschichte der Päpste to the contrary, every pope from Calixtus III to Paul III (from 1455 to 1534) was elected in the Chapel of S. Niccolò da Bari, cappella parva sancti Nicolai, not to be confused (as historians have usually done) with the tiny chapel on the floor above, parva cappella superior [Nicolal papae V], named after Nicholas V, who had Fra Angelico decorate it with the still extant frescoes. The name Nicholas has obviously helped cause confusion . . . (KMS 390).
This error is also carried over by JB 68-69. DRC, too, mentions that the turris scalarum and the cappella parva sancti Nicolai were demolished under Pope Paul III (towards the middle of the 16th century). The cappella was destroyed to widen the Scala del Maresciallo with scant regard to Fra Angelico’s frescoes (DRCa 20). (Michael Walsh’s The Conclave: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History of Papal Elections mentions many of the locations in which conclaves were held through the ages.)

Pope Nicholas V (1447-1455) ushered in a new phase of construction at the Vatican: in terms of his extensive plans for the Leonine City, a ring of walls with round artillery towers was to be built. A second wall would protect the Papal Palace on the northern and eastern sides. Only this second wall came to be constructed, however. It still exists with its main tower near the St Anna Gate (DRCa 20-21; DRCb 94). Nicholas V also put up buildings on the east and north sides of the current Cortile del Pappagallo (TCE), but only the north wing of the Papal Palace was completed under him. The archaic 14th century exterior style was retained. However, the new Florentine style was followed for the interior such as the ceilings and room proportions (DRCa 20-21):

Externally, the new wing imitated the appearance of the medieval building, even in its crenellated battlements; this is rather surprising, considering the contempt of the Renaissance for medieval architecture. Inside, however, everything was different: tufa blocks gave way to brick, beamed ceilings to vaulting, and the medieval aula, or hall, to the stanza, or room, proportioned according to the new geometric standards of Florentine humanism. All who entered the building felt transported, as though by enchantment, into the climate of the Tuscan Renaissance. The gloomy medieval castle had been transformed into a civilized dwelling for a great lord – something completely new in fifteenth-century Rome (DRC(b) 94).

In addition to the construction of the massive Torrione di Niccolò V, Pope Nicholas V constructed a wall northwards in the direction of the future Belvedere to enclose the open space there for a garden (TCE).

1458: St Peter's Piazza as depicted in The Conclave (2006), a film about the election of Pius II after the death of Callixtus III, uncle of the young Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia.
The Sant'Angelo Bridge as depicted in The Conclave, with St Peter's Basilica in the background.
A view of Rome from the Vatican in The Conclave. Aside from being good entertainment, the film is exceptional in attempting to provide credible glimpses of the Vatican and Rome at the time.
(I have been unable to contact the copyrightholders. If the above images should be an infringement of copyright, please inform me and they will be removed.)

Before the election of Sixtus IV in 1471, the west wing of the quadratic structure planned by Nicholas III was eventually completed (closing off the Cortile del Pappagallo). After his accession, Sixtus IV, who took up residence in the the apartments of the Cortile del Pappagallo, set apart the ground floor of the north wing, previously used for storing wine and grain, for a library (DRCa 22) that came to be known as the Bibliotheca Palatina (TCE). He also replaced Nicholas III’s deteriorating Cappella Magna with the Sistine Chapel (on which work was begun in 1475). In addition to its religious purpose, this chapel at the southeast corner of the Papal Palace fulfilled the function of a bastion, thus representing a step closer to realising the original idea of defensive towers at the four corners of the building complex around the Cortile del Pappagallo. Two towers were already facing Rome, and the Sistine Chapel represented the third in the quadratic series. The fourth bastion would be the Borgia Tower constructed by Pope Alexander VI at the northeast corner of the court opposite the Sistine Chapel. (It must be noted, DRC points out, that the original chapel had perhaps already had this additional fortification purpose.) (DRCa 22).

Pope Innocent VIII (1484-1492), successor to Sixtus IV, constructed the Belvedere on the second hill north of St Peter’s, Mons sancti Aegidii. (Nicholas III had already purchased the vineyards between his palace and this hill.)  The building was originally intended as a covered walk with a panoramic view over Rome, but Pope Innocent eventually decided to change it into a summer villa. Pope Innocent VIII also constructed the sacristy of the Sistine Chapel (DRCa 20, 22-23). The alterations he made to the Palace itself were so numerous that the building came to be known as the Palazzo di Innocenzo VIII (TCE).

The Vatican complex towards the close of the 15th century, showing the Palace of Innocent VIII (plus the Torre Borgia, which was added under his successor). Note the shaded parts in the portico of St Peter's. Also note the Belvedere to the right and the walls enclosing the gardens. The large round structure in the lower centre is the Tower of Nicholas V (Paul Letarouilly, Le Vatican, 1882)
Pope Alexander VI (who succeeded Pope Innocent VIII in 1492) had the Torre Borgia built to safeguard the entrance to the Papal Palace from the west (DRCa 24-26). By the time Pope Innocent VIII died, the structure of Nicholas V’s north wing to the palace (as fortification) had been finished, but a fortified section to the west was still lacking. It is this section, named the Torre Borgia, completed in 1494, that Pope Alexander added to the western entrance. He annexed it to Nicholas V’s north wing, but this was not done in a straight line [see Web.9].

The rooms in the

  • Palace of Nicholas III (Sala dei Pontefici),
  • Palace of Nicholas V (Sala delle Arti Liberali, Sala dei Santi, Sala dei Misteri) and
  • Torre Borgia (Sala delle Sibille, Sala del Credo)

became known as the Borgia Apartments. They were in fact not living quarters, but rather receptions rooms known as “secret cabinets”. Pope Alexander’s real living area consisted of small chambers behind the Sala delle Arti Liberali (MDB 69, 70), among which a bedroom and an antechamber (JB 69). Pinturicchio and his assistants began with the decorating project in November 1492 (MDB 69). (There is at least one reference on the Web to Pope Alexander’s “withdrawing rooms” in the Borgia Towers; if it is meant that the Sala delle Sibille and Sala del Credo were his living quarters, this idea is incorrect. See the maps in the page on the Borgia Apartments.)

(Copied after a line drawing on the Web. Permission being awaited: it seems that the publishing concern has been dissolved. A little mistake in creative rendering here: the loggia of the East Wing of the palace should have two levels – from the outset, two rows of loggie, as stated in DRC 20.)

After Pope Alexander, the programmes of Pope Julius II (elected in 1503) involved  chiefly the planning of:

  • the new Basilica;
  • the Belvedere Court;
  • a more impressive Papal Palace facade towards St Peter’s Piazza.

Pope Julius could not replace the old Papal Palace (as he surely wished, considering his personality) and Bramante was given the task of adapting it by giving it a more splendid appearance to onlookers. Pope Nicholas III’s architect had already recommended several rows of loggie from which to view Rome, and Bramante fell back on this conception. There was already a portico in the ground floor that he enclosed, and on top of this he constructed two galleries with 13 arches each. On the first floor he used Doric and on the second floor Ionic columns. Since Bramante extended the facade by 22 metres over the southeast corner, it can be assumed that he was planning to add a third row of arches with Corinthian columns. However, he died and Raphael, under Pope Leo X (1513-1521), added a colonnade with a raftered ceiling (DRCa 24-26).

Maerten van Heemskerck’s drawing of the facade of St Peter’s and the Vatican, 1530s: Dominating the centre is the eastern (“facade”) wing of the old Papal Palace with Bramante’s loggie already in place. Note the 13 arches and the tower structures on either side. Immediately to the left of and behind the palace one can see the top of the Sistine Chapel protruding. In the left part of the drawing is the Benediction Loggia, and just to the left of the topmost loggia one can see the pediment of the Old St Peter’s Basilica. Just above and behind that, an arch of the New St Peter’s Basilica is noticeable. Also note the smooth ramp, intended for horses, at the entrance to the Vatican Palace in the middle. (See Acknowledgements below)

The parts of the Papal Palace containing the Sala Regia, the two parts of the Sala Ducale, the cappella parva sancti Nicolai, the Cortile del Maresciallo and the old staircase leading from there to the Sala Regia, were public reception areas. The eastern and northern parts of the palace were for the popes’ private lives. Before work and redecoration started in 1538, the Sala Regia was lower than it is today and had a raftered ceiling. Doors and windows were arranged “arbitrarily”. Above the Sala were an additional storey and attic. At the south end (“back”) a door led to the Cappella Paolina, which now occupies the site of the previous cappella parva sancti Nicolai (decorated then with frescoes by Fra Angelico). Sangallo demolished the cappella to widen and straighten the Scala del Maresciallo (DRC 27-28). Bernini would later, under Alexander VII (mid-17th century), “unify” the divided Sala Ducale, but retained parts of the old dividing wall and used them like wings (DRC 33).

Under Pope Pius IV (early 1560s), the architect Ligorio demolished the angle-turret at the northern end of the Bramante-Raphael loggie where Innocent VIII’s eastern corridor to the Belvedere began. By extending the loggie, he started the transformation of the Secret Garden into the Damaso Court “in that the corridor was hidden from sight”. Pius V (late 1560s) continued work on his predecessor’s Torre Pia, which linked the Torre Borgia “with the new [west] corridor [now on the first floor] and in this way forms an impressive front” (DRC 30).


Clemente Fusero: The Borgias. London: The Pall Mall Press, 1972.
D Redig de Campos: “Buildings and Palaces”, in Art Treasures of the Vatican: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture. Edited by D Redig de Campos (Trsl. J Gerber). 1st American Edition. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1975.
D Redig de Campos: “The Apostolic Palace”, in The Vatican: Spirit and Art of Christian Rome. Edited by John Daley. Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York; Harry N. Abrams Publishers, New York, 1982.
F  L Glaser (Ed): Pope Alexander VI and his Court, Extracts from the Latin Diary of Johannes Burchardus, Bishop of Ostia And Civita Castellana, Pontifical Master Of Ceremonies, Nicholas L Brown, New York, 1921.
Johann Burchard: At the Court of the Borgia: Being an Account of the Reign of Pope Alexander VI written by his Master of Ceremonies Johann Burchard, edited and translated by Geoffrey Parker. London: The Folio Society. 1963.
Kenneth M Setton: The Papacy and the Levant (1204—1571), Volume II, The Fifteenth Century. The American Philosophical Society: Independence Square, Philadelphia. 1978. (Reprinted 1997.)
Maria Donati Barcellona: “The Borgia Apartments” in Art Treasures of the Vatican: Architecture, Painting, Sculpture. Edited by D Redig de Campos (Trsl. J Gerber). 1st American Edition. Prentice-Hall: Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1975.
Salvatore Volpini: Description of the Borgia Apartments Restored in the Vatican Palace (1897). Vatican Press: Rome. 1897.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vatican,


With sincere thanks to Dr Emil Krén, Director, Web Gallery of Art, for kind permission to use the
Maerten van Heemskerck drawing:

The location of the Palace of Santa Maria in Portico

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Zeno (ca. 1439/14401501) was called the Cardinal of S. Maria in Portico or the Cardinal of Vicenza ( The Palace of Santa Maria in Portico is indicated as Palazzo Zeno (the number 4) on a map in Geoffrey Parkers At the court of the Borgia (1963) on p. 40.


  1. Dear Tomaso, and where was the location of Santa Maria in Portico?

  2. Dear Snorri Di
    Thanks for your question. I actually had great trouble finding this out myself, and the most reliable information I could discover has been posted above.