A Roman friend once told me that if you stick a spade into the ground almost anywhere in Italy, you likely will hit a piece of the past. He was exaggerating but not by much. So when I began studying the history of the very first conclave to select a new pope, I expected to uncover something, but nothing quite as unusual as what I discovered.

The story began in 1268 after the death of Pope Clement IV. The custom back then was for the cardinals to meet in the town where the previous pope died. Thus, they were summoned, 20 of them, to the beautiful medieval town of Viterbo, about 80 kilometres outside of Rome.

The centre of Viterbo has changed little over the centuries. For millennia, it has been a popular spot because of natural spas that dot the landscape. The spas still exist although modern day visitors often come to experience one of central Italy’s best preserved examples of medieval architecture. And the place where the cardinals met back then remains much as it was more than seven centuries ago.

They gathered to begin their deliberations in the Viterbo cathedral which sits in a small, beautiful stone square called Palazzo dei Papi in the centre of the town’s medieval sector. And although the cathedral is virtually unchanged, the circumstances of papal elections then were very different than what have become familiar to Catholics today.

In theory, even today, any Catholic male is eligible to be named pope, and through history, there have been some notorious ones. Larceny at one time was perceived less as a sin than as papal privilege and there have been pontificates that were managed as little more than lucrative and powerful family businesses.

And so it was 745 years ago. The cardinals had gathered for an election that was based far more on politics than on virtue. And besieged from all sides by the national interests and lobbying of various European factions, they became hopelessly deadlocked. Day by day, they met in the cathedral, gravitating to various rooms in a surrounding palace. On and on it went. A leaderless Church then was the rough equivalent of a vitally important and influential European state floundering about with no direction. And the Catholic world was running out of patience.

After two years, one Cardinal quipped that perhaps someone should remove the roof to allow in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, never for an instant thinking that local authorities would oblige. Historical records from the time point the finger at the local leader of police who took the initiative to lock the cardinals into a room overlooking the Palazzo, ordered workmen to the roof to dismantle it, exposing the aging princes of the Church to the elements. He also ordered their rations reduced to bread and water.

That room still exists today. The roof has been replaced, but otherwise, it is much the same as it was seven and a half centuries ago. High ceiling, stone floor, stone walls, a pleasant place to visit but probably a very unpleasant virtual prison. After an unknown number of days locked inside, the cardinals wrote a letter, stating that one among them was ill and they begged to be released. The letter, as legend has it, was thrown from a window down into the square. And then, its pleas were simply ignored.

Unlike the ill cardinal, and in fact one other who died during the conclave, the letter survived and today sits in the town’s local library where custodian Giovanni Battista Sguario brought it out from storage to show a visiting CTV W5 crew. There is another letter kept in the Vatican archives but that one, Sguario insists, is not the original which the town of Viterbo kept. It’s stored in a glass case, the cardinals’ personal seals still attached, except for one that Sguario says broke away when the letter fell down into the square, “when it was being mailed,” he likes to joke.

As he tells the story of Viterbo’s place in Catholic history, he cannot stop smiling. “Two doctors of the Church back then said that the Holy Spirit was blowing air upon the cardinals, in order to inspire them to choose the new pope. It makes me laugh,” he says.

But in spite of heavenly inspiration, political pressure and meteorological discomfort, the deadlock would continue to drag on. By the time it ended, nearly 3 years had passed, the longest papal election in history. Finally, it was Gregory X who assumed the throne of St. Peter, and the Catholic Church had the beginnings of a new formalized method of choosing a pope. It was to be characterized by insulating the cardinals from outside pressure and influence, by closing them off “in conclave,” Latin for key.

Nowadays, the conclave is held, not in the cold confines of a stone room but in the fabulous Renaissance surroundings of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel. And when night falls, the cardinals retire to rooms in a residence nearby. Unlike 745 years ago, nowadays they are sequestered comfortably, but no less cut off from the outside world. It is the unforgotten lesson of Viterbo. But the town’s role in Church history may be fading from people’s memories. As Viterbo’s library curator closes the letter back inside its glass case, I ask him how often people drop by to ask about it. He says that a few curious journalists will visit at the time of conclaves but otherwise, almost never.