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The Secrets of the Vatican Museums
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The Popes in motion

The history of papal transportation unfolds along the 105 meter-long Carriage Pavilion in the Vatican Museums, commissioned in 1973 by Pope Paul VI to exhibit the means of transportation by which the Pontiffs moved along the course of time.

Paolo Ondarza – Vatican City

From the lush greenery of the Square Garden, visitors access the underground Carriage Pavilion, one of the departments that composes the Vatican Museums’ Department of Historical Collections. The route traversed here is fascinating: from sedan chairs, designed to carry Popes during long liturgies or to transport them through the vast spaces of the Apostolic Palace so as not tire themselves out, to court livery, carriages, portable thrones – even scale models of trains and airplanes.

Pope Benedict XIV visits Trevi Fountain, 18th century
Pope Benedict XIV visits Trevi Fountain, 18th century

Aboard the Pope’s carriage

One’s gaze is immediately captured by the beauty of the Grand Gala Berlin, the carriage used at one time for grand occasions. It was constructed in Rome in 1826 by Pope Leo XII. Almost twenty years later, Gregory XVI enhanced its decorations. Its eight gilded plumes distinguish it from the four that embellish the simpler Gala Berlins also on exhibit in the pavilion. Six finely harnessed steeds drew this carriage.

Interior of the Gran Gala Berlina
Interior of the Gran Gala Berlina

A 4-wheeled throne room

The carriage’s internal furnishings follow the protocol codified at the time of Pope Urban VIII (Maffeo Barberini), who inaugurated the use of papal carriages in the seventeenth century. Preserved intact, it was once used solely for the most important solemnities, roughly four times a year. It was designed as a “four-wheeled throne room” – the seat was a real Papal throne, crowned by a canopy decorated with a dove made of fabric, symbolizing the Holy Spirit.

Pope Sylvester enters Rome on horseback accompanied by the Emperor Constantine
Pope Sylvester enters Rome on horseback accompanied by the Emperor Constantine

Traveling protocol

The so-called ‘Papal train’ was preceded by the cross-bearer. Mounted on horseback, the cross-bearer held the processional cross in his hands. Behind him followed the cortege of other carriages moving at a walking pace, thus allowing the Vicar of Christ to greet and bless the faithful lining the way. “No one could have their backs turned to the Pope and only the emperor was allowed to open the carriage door and help him get out. In his absence”, explains Sandro Barbagallo, Curator of the Vatican Museums’ Department of Historical Collections, who conducts us through the Carriage Pavilion, “this exalted task was performed by the Master of the horse or the General Superintendent of the Post Office, who was responsible for planning the itinerary”. Their red uniforms, along with those of the coachmen or members of the Palatine Guard and noble guard make a fine display of their own within the Pavilion. The fine workmanship demonstrated on this carriage can be traced back to the hand of Gaetano Peroni, whose name is inscribed on the rear springs. The decorations, instead, bear the engraved signature of ‘Felice Eugenio, metalworker’.

Equestrian portrait of Pope Benedict XIII
Equestrian portrait of Pope Benedict XIII

Popes on horseback

The Grand Gala Berlin was retired in 1870 when Rome was conquered by the Savoys. Since then, the carriage has remained interred in the underground storage room of the Belvedere Court. But this was not the only disparagement suffered by the carriage in the history of transportation in the Papal States. “The fad for carriages”, Barbagallo says, “was born in France and Spain in the first half of the sixteenth century, and was used at first primarily as a means of transportation for women. Pope Pius IV (1559-1565), in fact, exhorted the cardinals to move about exclusively on horseback”.

Saddles on display in the Vatican Museums' Carriage Pavilion
Saddles on display in the Vatican Museums' Carriage Pavilion

Return from exile aboard a carriage

On display in the Vatican Pavilion are samples of carriages that postdate the Congress of Vienna (1814-1815). All carriages that had been used prior to that were either destroyed or confiscated during the Napoleonic plunder. “Pius VI was taken as prisoner from Rome aboard a carriage in 1798. He would later die in the French fort at Valence. His successor, Barnaba Chiaramonti, who chose the name of Pius VII on his election in the conclave of 1800 that took place in the Benedictine Abbey on the Island of San Giorgio in Venice, chose to symbolically celebrate his return to the Vatican by ‘taking possession’ of the St John’s Basilica. This was an official act that had always been performed before then on horseback or muleback, in memory of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem”. Commemorating this, there are on display a series of saddlecloths – the one used by Clement XIV particularly stands out for its refined craftsmanship.

A witness of the Papal exile after the 1850 uprisings of the Roman Republic is the berlin, equipped with a trunk, donated by the King of Naples to Pius IX for his return to Rome.

Berlin that belonged to Cardinal Lucien Louis Bonaparte
Berlin that belonged to Cardinal Lucien Louis Bonaparte

Napoleonic eagle

A reminder of the Napoleonic era comes in the form of a carriage that belonged to Cardinal Luciano Lucien Louis Bonaparte, the cousin of Napoleon III. It was made in France and entirely assembled in Rome. A plaque on the coachman’s seat bears the insignia of the eagle with a crown, the insignia of the famous French general.

See the Trailor

Postal service and the “boot”

In the pavilion are also the last two carriages used up until 1929 within the Vatican. The first is the traveling berlin given to Pope Pius IX by the king of Naples on his reentry from exile after the revolutionary movement of the Roman Republic in 1850. It is a carriage equipped with a trunk and used to transport mail. The second is characterized by a modern leather handbrake, called a ‘boot’. It was used on what would be the final trip of a Papal King in the papal territory of Romagna. Its use up into recent times is attested to by an old film shot by a collaborator of the Lumiere Brothers. In it, Pope Leo XIII (1878-1903) is shown walking through the Vatican Gardens.

Detail of Pope Leo XIII's sedan chair
Detail of Pope Leo XIII's sedan chair

Sedan chair in the shape of a boat

From among the sedan chairs on display, one that stands out was donated by the faithful of Naples to Pope Leo XIII in 1887 for the 50th anniversary of his priestly ordination. It is in the shape of a boat, the symbol of the Catholic Church, whose helm is in the hands of the Supreme Pontiff. It is truly a work of fine craftsmanship, richly decorated in wood, bronze, ivory, bone, glass and cameos.

From carriage to automobile

Pope Pius XI is the Pope who transitioned from the carriage to the car. Immediately after the signing of the Lateran Pact, he went to the Lateran Basilica to celebrate his 50th anniversary of priestly ordination in an American Graham-Paige. This vehicle was still accessorized like its carriage predecessors in the manner of a ‘throne room’. This was the vehicle that brought Pius XII to the area of Rome called San Lorenzo after it had been bombarded in the Second World War.

Citroën Lictoria C6
Citroën Lictoria C6

The Mercedes designed by Porsche

A car that succeeded the Graham-Paige is an extremely elegant Mercedes Nürburg. Sandro Barbagallo says it was “built at the time in which Ferdinand Porsche worked as a young man in the German automobile industry”.

Then a Citroën Lictoria C6 was used. Manufactured entirely in Italy, it recreates the idea of a carriage transformed into an automobile, featuring two decorative side lights, and the chauffeur’s seat is located outside of the papal ‘chamber’.

Mercedes-Benz 460 Nürburg limousine
Mercedes-Benz 460 Nürburg limousine

The Pope’s push button panel

“The interior, decorated like a Venetian drawing room, contains a push button panel next to the brocade and gilded wood throne. It is a control box through which the Pontiff decided the route: ‘Forward’, ‘slow down’, ‘turn right’, or return to the ‘Vatican’. The driver could see the indications on a small screen located on the dashboard”. Because there was no room left on the dashboard, the water temperature gauge was placed on the hood ornament of the car, behind the Citroën logo. Completing the accessories included in the car is a compartment used to store such things as a breviary, on which is affixed an image of Saint Christopher, protector of travelers. “Perhaps because the car’s accessories were considered excessively luxurious”, notes the Curator of the Department of Historical Collections, “it was not used much and has only 193 km on it”.

Pope's push button panel
Pope's push button panel

The assassination attempt popemobile

Holy Year 1975. In order to make the rounds of Saint Peter’s Square a number of times and to greet as many pilgrims as possible who had come for the Jubilee Year, Pope Paul VI ordered the acquisition of a Toyota which is preserved today in the Courtyard of Castel Gandolfo. Its immediate successor was a white Campagnola donated by Fiat in 1980 to Pope John Paul II, the Pope who abandoned the use of the sedan chair. Rebaptized as the ‘popemobile’, it can almost be considered a relic since it witnessed the assassination attempt on 13 May 1981, after which it was sequestered under papal secret.

Pope John Paul II's popemobile
Pope John Paul II's popemobile

Pope John XXIII’s barber’s chair

“In the last years of John Paul II’s pontificate, few realize that it was taken out of retirement and used again. John Paul could no longer stand up. Inside the vehicle”, Sandro Barbagallo reveals, “a revolving chair was installed by the Vatican floreria. It was Pope John XXIII’s old barber’s chair”.

Pope John XXIII on board the Mercedes 300d
Pope John XXIII on board the Mercedes 300d

International journeys

After the assassination attempt, even the Mercedes John Paul II inherited from Pope Paul VI, used through the 26 years of his pontificate, underwent several modifications. The bodywork was armored and 3 cm bulletproof windows were installed. Two armored ‘popemobiles’ are also on display in the Carriage Pavilion. Both were used by John Paul II and acquired for his international apostolic journeys. There is also a Bug produced on the Volkswagen assembly line in Mexico, a gift never used by the Pope. Lastly, there is a prototype, or one-off, the only model that exists in the world, of the Lancia Thesis Giubileo, a gift from lawyer, Gianni Agnelli to the Holy Father.

Pope Paul VI on board an aircraft
Pope Paul VI on board an aircraft

One-of-a-kind model

The Lancia Thesis Giubileo “was designed to meet the ever more precarious health and transportation concerns of the Holy Father [Pope John Paul II]. The seat moves outward, facilitating getting into the car; the vehicle is fully convertible; the door opens at a right angle; the inner shaft is not raised. Because of all this, the car does not move that fast. It is, therefore, comfortable, but not dependable in case of emergency”.

For this reason, Pope Benedict XVI, whose coat of arms is affixed on the doors, made use of it only temporarily. On exhibit in the pavilion are the Mercedes used by Ratzinger and the two ‘coach models’ of the same vehicle used by the Secretariat of State to transport illustrious guests.

Schumacher's steering wheel given to Pope Benedict XVI
Schumacher's steering wheel given to Pope Benedict XVI

The Popes and the Formula 1

Benedict XVI was dubbed ‘Christianity’s pilot’ during the dedication ceremony in December 2005 during which Ferrari President Luca Cordero di Montezemolo, presented Michael Schumacher’s 2003 Formula 1 steering wheel. When he received the steering wheel, on exhibit in the pavilion, the current Pope emeritus compared its complicated technology to the “complexity of leading the Church”.

Just a few months prior, Cordero had given Pope John Paul II a special 400 limited edition of the ‘Ferrari Enzo’, which the Pope decided to auction off later. Proceeds from the sale went to the victims of the tsunami in southeast Asia.

Pope Francis's Renault 4
Pope Francis's Renault 4

Lower class Renault 4

Bringing the course to an end is Pope Francis’s Renault 4. Registered in 1984, it has a 300 thousand km long charitable history. It belonged previously to Father Renzo Zocca, a priest who lived on the outskirts of Verona. In 2013, he decided to restore it and give it to the Holy Father.

Detail of the back window of the Citroën Lictoria C6
Detail of the back window of the Citroën Lictoria C6

Traveling with the Church

Busts of the Popes alternate throughout the pavilion along with the vehicles and other unforgettable paraphernalia bringing to life the history of papal transportation: the model Alitalia airplane that made the first international Apostolic Journey that took Pope Paul VI to the Holy Land in January 1964; or the first train that docked during a test-run at the Vatican train station.

Mounting the ramp that leads to the sun-bathed Square Garden, one gets the impression of having been a passenger for a few hours on board the history of an uninterrupted course of events marked by the wounds and shortcomings of the Church entrusted to Peter which has always risen again, starting out once again along the long march of time.

The fifth in the series on the Sistine Chapel will be published on 28 September

Photogallery

Carriage Pavilion Photo Gallery
20 July 2021, 10:00