THERE is one hotel which never features in any guide book. It does not appear on TripAdvisor and no clients ever post their opinion of it. It has no star rating and inspectors in disguise never come calling.
Clients cannot phone reception and make a booking on their own. They must be recommended to stay there.
Set inside the walls of Vatican City, this hotel is now the focus of world attention, because since yesterday it has been hosting the cardinal electors in the conclave.
The hotel in question is the Domus Sanctae Marthae, a nondescript building on six floors.
The Domus Sanctae Marthae was constructed in the mid-1990s, replacing a hospital built in 1891 for the victims of a cholera epidemic who lived in the crowded tenements surrounding the Vatican. The hospital was closed in 1932.
During World War Two, the building was used to hide Jewish people who took refuge within the city walls. Ambassadors whose countries had broken off diplomatic relations with Italy or who were unable to leave the country were offered hospitality by Pope Pius XII.
An American entrepreneur, John Connolly, had made contact with Cardinal Rosario Castilla Lara, then Governor of Vatican City State. Connolly proposed to sell replicas of works of art from the Vatican museums.
In 1996, he set up a company called Vatican Art. The idea was to sell reproductions in the American Catholic market, a market in excess of 77 million Catholics. As the Jubilee of the year 2000 was just four years away, Connolly suggested there would be a surge in the interest for religious art.
The proposal ought to have been highly lucrative for both the Vatican Museums and the entrepreneur. Perhaps as part of the deal, Connolly was persuaded to put up several million dollars towards the construction of a new hotel for the Vatican.
Connolly embraced the challenge gladly. The projected cost for the hotel was $20m and Connolly pledged $13m.
The project stalled. Connolly was rumoured to have paid the advance but the art replica business collapsed. He was a casino owner and his shares plunged. Worth $105m in 1995, the share portfolio had lost $14m by 1996.
In 1998, the Vatican Museums sent an exhibition to the US , entitled The Invisible Made Visible – Angels from the Vatican. The exhibition toured a number of states, lead by the Patrons of the Arts of the Vatican Museums. Some of the replica art work was sold in conjunction with the exhibition catalogue. However, the sales were nothing as robust as Connolly and the Museum authorities had hoped.
Other benefactors stepped in and paid the outstanding bill.
The American architect, Louis D Astorino of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, oversaw the building project and designed the chapel. Dedicated to the Holy Spirit, the chapel is notable for its tent-like roof. Astorino was the first American architect to receive a commission to build in the Vatican. The entrance lobby in the Domus Santae Marthae is elegantly furnished with marble cladding. As with regular hotels, there is a reception desk. Stairs lead down to a large dining hall and a reading area.
The Domus, built with reinforced concrete, consists of two rectangular blocks, united by a central corridor.
There are 106 small suites, comprising a bedroom and study, along with 22 single rooms. The Patriarchal Suite will be used this week when the new Pope is elected.
WHILE a small number of rooms are occupied by members of the Curia, the Domus is mainly intended for visitors to the Vatican.
In his Apostolic Constitution, Universi Dominici Gregis, Pope John Paul II decreed that the cardinals should reside in the Domus during conclaves.
As the number of electors is set at 115, seven cardinals may pull a short straw and end up with a single room each.
However, the accommodation is far better than the days when the cardinals were billeted in the halls adjacent to the Sistine Chapel. Each morning and afternoon they are bused to and fro between the chapel where balloting takes place.
One hopes Their Eminences don't get too comfortable at the Domus Santae Marthae.
Fr Michael Collins was Editorial Consultant for The Illustrated Bible (Dorling Kindersley) and a columnist with The Catholic Times