Cars of the Popes
From Friday 24th to Sunday 26th of May, the medieval center of Viterbo welcomes an exhibition of nine gleaming papal automobiles, in use from the time of Pope Pius XI in the 1920’s to Paul VI in the 1960’s. Prior to this the Vatican still used horse-drawn carriages. The papal cars were also used to welcome and transfer official delegations into the Vatican, from Queen Elizabeth to John and Jacqueline Kennedy. The fleet of nine, which has been meticulously restored, includes an impressive Cadillac favored by Pope John XXIII and the modest Checker Marathon, an American taxi (pictured below) that was commissioned in black by Pope Paul VI in 1963. This particular model was made famous by Robert De Niro in the cult film “Taxi Driver”. Pope Paul VI’s move towards a more understated car was a preview of Francis’ papacy. Over the last few years, the Holy Father has been driven around the Vatican in everything from a Ford Focus to a Fiat 500, and even a vintage 1984 Renault handed down to him from an elderly priest.
At dawn on Thursday, May 23rd, the cars left the NB (Nicola Bulgari) Center in Rome in procession for Viterbo. The papal fleet is generously on loan from the NB Center and forms part of one of the world’s largest private collections of American cars. Nicola Bulgari’s great-grandfather founded the Bulgari brand, now controlled by LVMH. As a child growing up near their flagship store at the Spanish Steps, he often saw the sleek, curvaceous American cars pass by and after seeing them displayed in the Vatican, he promised himself he would own one. Today the collection has grown to over 200 cars, including these from the Vatican.
The exhibition celebrates the 30 year anniversary of the Veteran Car Club of Viterbo, the most important association of historic cars in Central Italy. Maria Leitner - presenter on the weekly news program on Rai 2 TG2 Motori - and I were invited to join the fleet for the final part of the pilgrimage. We were driven in the lead car, an opulent 1938 Cadillac which brought Lord Chamberlain to meet Pope Pius XI in January 1939 to discuss how World War II could possibly be avoided. We drove into Piazza del Plebiscito, the political nucleus of Viterbo to meet the Mayor who joined the last leg to the medieval center, in front of the Palazzo dei Papi in Piazza San Lorenzo. Viterbo became a papal city in 1243. Seven popes resided in this palace between 1257 and 1281. Though very different eras, it is amazing to see the cars in all their glory parked in front of the papal palace.
From 24-26 May the Popes’ cars will be on exhibit for free in front of the Palazzo dei Papi, Viterbo. Historical car buffs and detailed placards will be alongside the cars throughout the exhibition to provide an explanation of the political circumstances in which each car was used, and which popes, heads of state and celebrities rode in them. Take the opportunity to see this piece of Vatican history in the stunning medieval town of Viterbo, only an hour from Rome. The Church of San Lorenzo towers over the cars and is well worth a visit to see the frescoes from the 1400’s (pictured below). Afterwards wander through the town and try some delicious local cuisine. If you see sgombro (mackeral) salad, go for it!
A very warm thank you to Maria Leitner and her crew from TG2, and the friendly members of the Veteran Car Club of Viterbo and The NB Center in Rome for making this incredible day (and fun story) possible. Top photo of me in Pope Paul VI’s Checker Marathon by Andrea Tubili from Lightcut Film.