The Pope has announced that he will step down at the end of the month and thus, another pope will be chosen in Rome, in the Sistine Chapel, by Cardinals gathering from all around the world. The process is known as a conclave. Behind closed doors, four votes will be held each day—twice in the morning and twice in the afternoon. A successful vote will be signaled by white smoke from the chapel’s chimney. Every effort is made for a quick, smooth transition of leadership.
But the humble city of Viterbo, sixty miles north of Rome, know that popes were not always elected in Rome. Sheepishly, perhaps, they know that current tradition of strictly-ruled elections was caused by a particularly inefficient election that they hosted.
In the 13th century, Rome was a place of discord and disease, and a number of popes moved up to Viterbo, to escape the mess. At that time, when a pope died, the successor could be elected at the place of death. So, Viterbo had the great distinction of having hosted the election of five popes. It was the last of the five elections, however, which changed papal election history.
When Pope Clement IV died in Viterbo in 1268, cardinals gathered there to elect his successor. A two-thirds vote was needed, but very hard to get. At first, the Viterbese were proud to host the election. Cardinals stayed all over the city and gathered once a day to vote. It was exciting to have the dignitaries in their midst. However, day after day, week after week, no settlement was made between two competing interests. This took its toll on the local population who were hosting and feeding these guests and their entourages.
Weeks turned into months, so to hasten the process, the cardinals were pushed to move into the Papal Palace and forced to work together behind locked doors (cum clave—”locked up”—where we get the term “conclave”). When that didn’t work, the Viterbese reduced the food and wine supplies to the palace, hoping to create a less hospitable environment.
After 33 months, the locals then resorted to removing part of the roof of the building and exposing them to the weather! They stated (or joked) that would “let the Holy Spirit in.” Very soon after, six cardinals were selected to settle the issue in two days. It took only one. Pope Gregory X was elected, concluding the longest papal election in history.
One of Pope Gregory’s acts was to never let that happen again. Rules were established which have stayed virtually the same to this day.
For my drawing, I sat facing the Duomo, at the entrance to Piazza San Lorenzo, home of the Papal Palace, where the longest election in papal history—two years and nine months—was held.