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Theological Notebook: The Pope's Apartment (Not Terribly Theological, But Interesting)

No Place Like Home: Papal Apartment Gets Extreme Makeover

By John Thavis
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- When he was elected last April, Pope Benedict XVI inherited the papal apartment on the top floor of the Apostolic Palace, but it wasn't until Christmas that the pope could really call it home.

The apartment, about 10 rooms in all, underwent a three-month renovation this fall. Electrical wiring was replaced, new pipes were installed, the kitchen was refurbished and a custom-fitted private library was put in place.

It was "Extreme Makeover: Vatican Edition." And while the pope didn't whoop or jump up and down at the unveiling, he made it clear he was pleased with the results.

"I can only admire the things you've done, like these beautiful floors," he told the more than 200 architects, engineers and workers involved in the remodeling project.

"I really like my new library, with that antique ceiling. For me it's like being surrounded by friends, now that there are books on the shelf," he said.

The floors were the original 16th-century marble slabs and inlay, restored to their original luster. The library solved the problem of where to put the pope's 20,000 books, which he did not want to leave in storage somewhere.

Details of the remodeling were considered secret, but they emerged in the sideways fashion typical of the Vatican. When Bruno Bartoloni, a veteran Vatican correspondent for the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera, went to have his hair cut recently, he found himself seated next to a talkative member of the restoration team.

The renovation, the workman related, was long overdue. The architects said they were surprised at the poor state of the apartment.

For one thing, the electrical system was not up to code. Some rooms still used old 125-volt electrical outlets, which were phased out years ago in Italy in favor of 220 volts. The water pipes were encrusted with rust and lime, and the heating system was approximate at best.

Above the false ceiling, workers discovered big drums placed strategically to catch the leaks from the roof; some were nearly full of water.

The makeover included renovation of the medical studio, which is said to include emergency surgery and dentistry equipment. The papal bedroom, situated at the corner of the building, was completely redone, and most of the rooms were freshly wallpapered.

The new kitchen was reportedly outfitted by a German company, with state-of-the-art ovens, ranges and other appliances.

Those who frequented the papal apartment under Pope John Paul II have no doubt that the place needed an overhaul. Polish film director Krzysztof Zanussi, a friend of the late pope, once said he was astonished at the gloominess of the place, with its outmoded furnishings and lack of lighting.

"Everything was in semidarkness, somber and without inspiration. The chairs were like the ones my aunt had in the suburbs of Warsaw," Zanussi said. "It was not a place that made one feel good."

The papal apartment wraps around two sides of the Apostolic Palace and is accessed by a doorway that opens onto a historic loggia decorated with frescoes. The layout includes a vestibule, the library, a small studio for the papal secretary and the pope's private studio, from which he blesses the crowd every Sunday.

The other rooms include the pope's bedroom, the medical studio, his private chapel, a small living room, a dining room and kitchen.

The papal apartment didn't always have a bird's-eye view of St. Peter's Square and the city of Rome. In fact, it was only in the late 1300s that popes established their permanent residence at the Vatican.

The masterfully decorated apartments of Renaissance pontiffs like the Borgia pope, Alexander VI, are now part of the Vatican museums. The most famous papal apartment was that of Pope Julius II, who had rooms decorated with a cycle of frescoes by Italian artist Raphael Sanzio.

It was Pope Pius X who transferred his apartment to the top floor of the Apostolic Palace in 1903. In 1964, Pope Paul VI completely remodeled the papal residence, and Pope John Paul made his own changes early in his papacy.

In the late 1930s, the huge attic above the apartment was remodeled to make a series of mini-apartments that open to the inner courtyard. They house members of the pope's household staff, and one is said to have been refitted as a guest quarters for Pope Benedict's brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger.

The fact that workmen finished the pope's apartment in only three months impressed everyone in Rome, where even small-scale renovations seem to take forever.

"I had a small house built for me in Germany once," the pope told the workmen. "I'm convinced that anywhere else this project would have taken a year or perhaps longer."

From a German pope to his Italian makeover team, it was a high compliment.
Tags: architecture, art, benedict xvi, historical, john paul ii, theological notebook

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