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Avignon in modern-day Provence became the seat of the papacy for almost a century when, in March 1309, the French Pope Clement V, fleeing the violence that ensued in Rome after his election in 1305, set himself up in Avignon's Dominican monastery, still in what had been papal territories since 1274, but close to the Rhone, the border with France, whose King Phillippe IV was his chief supporter. In total, six successive popes were French, and were vigorously supported by the French crown. Conversion of the old Bishop's palace into a magnificent papal residence began in 1334. Eventually, between the old and new palaces the palace residence sprawled over 2.6 acres. Although the Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome in 1377, the "antipopes," Clement VII and Benedict XIII, also made Avignon their home until 1403. Only long after Dickens's visit did the site become a national museum (1906). Urban V's grandiose courtyard remains, but of the magnificent furnishings and ornamentation the only vestiges are elegant turquoise tiles and some blue frescoed walls with a tree of life design in the papal chambers. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palais_des_Papes.

From left to right: The famous Pont d'Avignon, A view from the river of the heavily fortified Palace of the Popes The popes and the papal bureaucracy moved here after the medieval schism in the Church, and their settlement here, which added to the power and prestige of the French king, made this a wealthy town. .

Dickens and Avignon

In Pictures from Italy (1845), Dickens describes his family's journey in a great, lurching old carriage through France and into Italy in July 1844. The town of Avignon, once the seat of the papacy, rates special attention in the opening chapters because it was also the headquarters of the Inquisition, whose excesses Dickens, like other nineteenth-century Liberals, deplored.

In his tour of the papal place, recounted in "Lyon, The Rhone, and the Goblin of Avignon," Dickens was shown the interrogation chamber by an aged and demonic tour guide ("A little, old, swarthy woman, with a pair of flashing black eyes"), a concierge du palais apostolique who delighted in unveiling the precipitous cute down which the torturers would hurl the corpses of those detainees who expired during questioning.

From left to right: The castellated walls of the Palace of the Popes, The entrance to the palace. The Honor Courtyard. A papal crest in the crypt.

Although the general public today is not admitted to this part of the mediaeval palace, the kitchen chimney, many stories high, gives one some notion as to what the chute (constructed at the same time) would have looked like, viewed from the ground.

From left to right: The palace chimney, The Renaissance Curia. The Honor Courtyard. Bells ringing in a church close to the palace.

Other aspects of the old walled town described in the book include "an under-done-pie-crust, battlemented wall," the narrow streets, religious souvenirs, sleepy courtyards, and the cathedral, and, hardby, "the ancient Palace of the Popes, of which [in 1844, after the confiscation of the property during the French Revolution] one portion is now a common jail, and another a noisy barrack: while gloomy suites of state apartments, shut up and deserted, mock their own old state and glory, like the enbalmed bodies of kings." However, the majority of the chapter records Dickens's impressions of "La Salle de la Question," the Chamber of Torture, and his guide's vivid descriptions of the methods of torture employed by the Executioner of the Inquisition:

A cold air, laden with an earthly smell, falls upon the face of Monsieur [the tourist]; for she has opened, while speaking, a trap-door in the wall. Monsieur looks in. Downward to the bottom, upward to the top, of a steep, dark, lofty tower: very dismal, very dark, very cold. The Executioner of the Inquisition, says Goblin [the guide], edging in her head to look down also, flung those who were past all further torturing, down here. "But look! does Monsieur see the black stains on the wall?" A glance, over his shoulder, at Goblin's keen eye, shows Monsieur — and would without the aid of the directing-key [with which she pointed] — where they are. "What are they?" "Blood!!"

Related Material


Dickens, Charles. American Notes & Pictures from Italy. New York: P. F. Collier & Son, n. d. [Originally published in London by Bradbury & Evans in May 1846).

Last modified 2 August 2010