The history of the palace is tightly connected with that of the Roman Catholic Bishopric and the cathedral. Its beginnings, as part of an ensemble of buildings that developed and changed constantly, are difficult to clarify. Scholarly consensus proposes 1009 as the year the Bishopric of Transylvania was established; however, the first bishop to be recorded in the rare documents of that time was Bishop Simon, in the year 1111. The ensemble of the episcopal residence was erected in parallel with the construction of the cathedral in the southwestern corner of the ancient Roman fortress, which was also used as a fortification in the medieval period. The complex went through numerous transformations and enlargements across many centuries before it reached its present form.
The earliest stage can be only hypothetically imagined. Perhaps it consisted of the repaired towers of the former Roman fortress and the dungeon (tower house), repurposed as the bishop’s residence. Written sources on the bishop’s palace date back as far as the thirteenth century. The first is a narrative of the devastation carried out by the Mongols in 1242. As an eyewitness, a certain Rogerius mentions that he saw churches and palaces in Alba Iulia destroyed by the Mongols. Several decades later, in 1277, the palace was set on fire by Saxons from the Sebeş area who were dissatisfied with the way that tithes were collected. In a document dated 1287 appears mention of a passage through which the bishop went from the palace to the cathedral. In documents of the same period mention is made of a chapel that was part of the complex, though traces of this building have not been identified so far.
During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the palace was enlarged into a complex of buildings erected next to each other on the southern and northern sides along the walls of the fortress. Fragments of walls from the Roman fortress are preserved. In a document from 1492, the chapel was mentioned again.
The whole complex underwent many changes during the first decades of the sixteenth century, when Renaissance influences appeared in Transylvanian architecture. The episcopal centers were the earliest favorable milieus, and Alba Iulia bishopric was no exception. Most of the bishops were themselves highly educated individuals holding degrees from European universities. Some of them influenced the evolution of the city and diocese through their actions and decisions. This was the case of Ladislas Geréb of Vingard (1475-1501), who is believed to have introduced in Alba Iulia and in Transylvania the taste for Renaissance. He initiated major renovation works in the palace. Further renovation was carried out during the time of Bishop Francis Várday (1513-1524), as demonstrated by an inscription lost during nineteenth century, but whose content is known.
During this time the palace was elevated by the addition of another story and the whole ensemble of buildings became a single unit. New Renaissance-style windows and doors with rectangular stone frames were completed. The ground floor was used for trade-related activities and the first floor was designated as the apartment of the bishop, guest rooms for high-ranking persons and function rooms.
An inventory of the palace, recorded in 1521, offers a general image of the everyday life of the episcopal palace in the sixteenth century. Among other things, it mentions the bishop’s library. It also states that in his apartment was an Italian bed with a green canopy, various pieces of furniture, a mirror, an ivory chandelier, a glass lantern, a clock, and paintings. In hot summers the bishop cooled himself with a fan, and during winter he could warm his bedclothes with a bed warmer. From his apartment, the bishop could enter the cathedral through a wooden passage that connected the two buildings on the first floor level. The wooden passage was built in the early sixteenth century and fixed during the time of Paul Bornemissza (1553-1556).
In 1542, following the death of Bishop John Statileus (1528-1542), the diet of Transylvania decided to hand over the episcopal palace as a residence of Queen Isabella (1519-1559) and her son John Sigismund, prince of Transylvania. In 1556, the Roman-Catholic Bishopric was eliminated and the palace became the residence of princes until 1699, when Transylvania was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire.
In 1715, the former episcopal palace was again given to the Roman Catholic Bishopric of Transylvania. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries major changes and repairs were made, especially on the southern and eastern sides. The latter was replaced by an annex constructed in the nineteenth century.
Nowadays, the episcopal palace is in the shape of a square, with a beautiful courtyard in its center. Recent restorations have revealed various Renaissance-period window and door frames and the traces of a portico. On the southern façade of the northern wing, on the first floor, is a solar clock. Near the portico is a well dating from the Middle Ages. (C.A.)