Saturday, February 11, 2012

Babylon-on-the-Rhone: Avignon

The treasures of the Vatican didn’t remotely prepare me for the awesomeness of Avignon, the spectacular setting of The Inquisitor’s Key  and its (virtually identical) UK twin, The Bones of Avignon.

The year was 1998. I’d recently started writing and producing documentaries for A&E, the Arts & Entertainment Network, and I’d just been handed the best of projects and the worst of projects: a two-hour A&E special about the Vatican. Cool subject; gorgeous footage; serious script problems. Three other writer/producers had already come to grief on the shoals of the project; it was a high-budget, high-stakes, and high-likelihood-of-failure gig. The production company I was working for, an ambitious young outfit called Jupiter Entertainment, had somehow wrangled a backstage pass to shoot in the Vatican, but the shoot had to be done quickly. There was no shooting script; there wasn’t even an outline for the show. The initial crew was sent to Rome with instructions to “shoot everything.” The only plan was to figure out a plan later, once the footage was in hand.
Some months (and some writer/producers) later, the footage and the project got dumped on me…er, I mean, entrusted to me. After much research (and much head-scratching), I came up with a script called “The Vatican Revealed,” a title vague enough to allow us to cherry-pick—I mean, “reveal”—choice morsels of history, art, architecture, and even modern Machiavellian maneuvering (Pope John Paul II’s part in toppling the Communist empire—a topic on which I got to interview legendary journalist Carl Bernstein!).

But the footage we had—somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred hours of footage—didn’t add up to the script I’d written, so we begged for (and got) Vatican permission to go back briefly. We shot in catacombs. Roman ruins. The Vatican Library. The Vatican Museums. On the way home, almost as an afterthought, we made a quick side trip to a small city in southern France—Avignon—which I’d never heard of before this project. (Growing up Protestant in a small town in Alabama, I hadn’t exactly been steeped in papal history.) During the 1200s and early 1300s, I learned, Italy was ravaged by a deadly feud between two factions, the Guelphs and Gibellines (imagine the Hatfields and the McCoys wearing tights, speaking Italian, and wielding daggers rather than shotguns). So when a French pope was elected in 1305, the French king “suggested” the pope come to France, and the papacy relocated to a town in Provence called Avignon. And there it stayed for much of the 1300s—a sojourn called the Babylonian Captivity by critics.

Avignon was strategically located, at one end of southern France’s only bridge across the Rhone. When Pope Clement V arrived in 1309, he commandeered the local bishop’s palace—cramped, makeshift quarters in which Clement and two successors made do, until 1334. In that year—while still claiming that the papacy was in Avignon “temporarily”—Pope Benedict XII began work on more spacious quarters. Avignon grew by leaps and bounds, its population soaring from about 3,000 in 1309 to some 50,000 in 1348.

When I arrived in Avignon in 1998, camera crew in tow, I was blown away. We came to shoot in the “Palace of the Popes” … but the structure that loomed high above us was not so much a palace as an impregnable fortress, protected by massive towers and soaring battlements. And in keeping with the pope’s status as God’s go-to guy on earth, it was big. How big? The biggest Gothic castle in Europe. The papal court at Avignon, I learned, cost 10 times what the royal court of France cost to run.

For a small-town boy from Alabama, Avignon was eye-popping. After two days of shooting—in the immense audience hall, the cathedral-sized “private” chapel, the fresco-filled walls, the heavily fortified treasure chamber—I left Avignon bewitched and bedazzled. I’ve got to come back someday, I thought. I’m not finished here yet; don’t wanna be, anyhow.

Thirteen years later, in the spring of 2011, I returned. No camera crew this time; just my lovely, smart wife … and an idea for a crime novel that would link the majesty, mystery, and power-plays of medieval Avignon with modern-day murder and forensic science. What if a mysterious set of bones was found in the Palace of the Popes, I thought, hidden there in the 14th century – bones that could be the archaeological find of the millennium? Who might be dying—or who might be killing—to lay their hands on those bones?

People often ask writers, “Where do you get your ideas?” For The Inquisitor’s Key, I got the idea—though it took years to gestate in my subconscious—there within the ancient city walls and beneath the looming battlements of Avignon.


  1. It would not be Inquisitor's Key. I'm tired of puzzle pieces such as Davinci Code and others of the same genre, whereas "Bones" implies a more general "adventure" in reading - and in a somewhat more exotic setting than The Vatican, which I'm also tired of.

  2. This book is great! The insight is amazing. Thank you for this sharing this. It is amazing how I questioned myself about the possibilites of finding Christs' remains. What an impact that would be on society if it were possible. The work of artists can be compelling and it is a bit scary to see how art pieces can be manipulated. I also thought this book would have a clash of religious figures but to my surprise, every thing worked with such synergy that it created an amazing tale! I love this! Thank you!