Here’s a new YouTube video that takes you on a tour of the Pope’s palace in Avignon. We begin outside the west façade of the palace, where a busker is entertaining for coins, enter through the double portcullis, take a look around the courtyards, peer out of the Pope’s indulgence window. Then we join the secret palace tour to see inside a room with a decorated wooden ceiling and go up the corkscrew staircase, the only one that goes from top to bottom. We emerge on the roof, where the wind is blowing. From here, we see a 360 degree video of the city below. I had fun putting this together from my own photos and videos of the palace. I hope you enjoy it.
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Muse is set in medieval Avignon during the period when the popes resided there, rather than in Rome. Writers such as Francesco Petrarch flocked to the city to seek patronage from the Pope and cardinals. The city was bursting with craftsmen, merchants, goldsmiths, and money lenders as well as the architects, master masons, and artists who worked on the Pope’s immense palace. Under Clement VI, who appears in Muse, the palais des papes became the most celebrated court in Europe, a salon for the artists, musicians, and intellectuals who were the avant-garde of the Renaissance. At the beginning of the 14th century, Avignon was a city of 5,000 people. It grew by a thousand a year as men came to the papal city to seek their fortune and curry favour with the Pope, who was centralizing religious power in himself. The Pope behaved more like a monarch than a spiritual leader. The main symbol of his opulence was the palace itself . . .
The inspiration behind my novel Muse is the amazing town of Avignon in France, where the popes resided in the 14th century. I visited it five times to explore the popes’ palace, the city wall, the rivers and canals, and the surviving medieval streets and buildings. I went there to soak up the atmosphere and walk in Solange’s shoes. The late middle ages are so far back in time that facts are scarce and history blurs into poetry and myth. This made the city even more attractive to me, because I could gather many story-strands into a single character, the fictional Solange Le Blanc. Early on, I decided to tell the story from Solange’s point of view. This was a blessing, because it would have been drudgery to wade through the piles of information about theAvignon popes. Acres of worm-eaten parchment sit in the Vaucluse archives, not to mention the Vatican archives in Rome.
As the author of two novels, Conceit (Doubleday 2007) and Muse(Doubleday 2013), I often get asked “Where do you get your ideas from?”
Actually, I waited for years for my first good idea to come along. Finally, when I was about fifty, I stumbled across the story of Veronica Franco, a poet and “intellectual courtesan” in 16th-century Venice. What if someone dug up a lost manuscript by Franco? That would make a great book, but unfortunately, it had been written. Were there any courtesans in papal Avignon, a city equal in splendour to Venice? I had visited Avignon and seen the pagan frescoes in the Pope’s bedchamber. What sort of antics had gone on there? Avignon was a city of men, but not just ordinary men—unmarried clerics. I read in Peter de Rosa’s scandalous book, Vicars of Christ, that 14th-century Avignon had “spectacular whores.” Eureka. Avignon would be better than Venice.