It may come as a surprise to most people, but about 40 children were born in the bedroom of the pope at the pontifical summer residence south of Rome.
Now that bedroom, which became a makeshift delivery room when the residence housed refugees during World War Two, and the rest of the papal apartments have been opened to the public as part of a museum. The frugal Pope Francis decided not to use the villa – similar to but smaller than some of Europe’s royal residences, judging it too luxurious and grandiose.
The Vatican on Friday opened the private apartments at the papal summer retreat to the public, giving visitors a rare look at the bed where Popes Pius XII and Paul VI died and where John Paul II recovered from an assassination attempt in 1981.
In 2014, the gardens opened to visitors, in part to help offset the economic downturn the lake-front town has experienced since Francis decided to stay put in Rome. Last year the Vatican inaugurated weekly train service so visitors can see both the Vatican and the leafy hill-top refuge in one day.
Now, visitors can tour the never-before-seen private apartment of the palazzo itself, including the Consistory Room where Pius XII made Angelo Roncalli a cardinal in 1953. Roncalli later became Pope John XXIII.
Locals hope the apartments, the final part of the estate to be open to the public over the past two years, will boost the tourist-based economy of this lakeside town, hurt by Francis’ decision to stay at work in the Vatican and take no vacations.
And, while they understand Francis’ motives, they are praying the next pope will reverse the decision.
“We fear it will be a tombstone for us if future popes follow his example,” Castel Gandolfo mayor Milvia Monachesi told Reuters at the opening on Friday.
“The fact that the palace is now a museum will make a reversal in the future difficult,” she said.
At 55 hectares estate in the Alban hills south of Rome, the residence, which includes several buildings, elaborate Renaissance-style gardens, a forest and a working dairy farm, is larger than Vatican City.
The Vatican has owned the estate since 1596. The first pope to use it as a summer residence was Urban VIII in the 17th century. About half of some 30 popes since have used it to escape the heat of the Roman summer.
When the papal court moved here for months at a time, tourists followed, particularly on Sundays when the pope gave his blessing from the residence. Benedict XVI, who resigned in 2013, was the last to use it.
While the entire estate is now open, the main draw is the pope’s bedroom, one of the 20 marble-floored rooms in the private apartments overlooking Lake Albano, an extinct volcano.
The four-metre by seven-metre bedroom, with beige walls and light green curtains, has a single bed with a gold-plated head and foot and is adjacent to a private chapel.
Pius XII did not use the residence during World War Two so he ordered it to be opened to area residents fleeing battles.
At least 12,000 people, including Jews, took refugee there in 1944 as the area was engulfed by fighting between the Allies and occupying Nazis.
Because it was the most private room, the pope’s bedroom became a delivery room for several months in 1944. Pius XI’s real name was Eugenio Pacelli and many of the some 40 children born there were named Eugenio or Eugenia by their parents.
Pius resumed spending summers there after the war and died in the same bedroom in 1958. Pope Paul VI also died in the room in 1978.
Seven large rooms house a papal portrait gallery and pontifical artefacts, such as intricately embroidered liturgical vestments, elaborate thrones going back hundreds of years, and several pair of papal slippers, including those worn by Pope Pius V, who died in 1572.