The history of Castel Sant’Angelo is closely linked to that of Rome: the constant changes, poverty and wealth of the city are invariably reflected in the imposing structure that since almost two thousand years rests on the placid waters of the Tiber.
Castel Sant’Angelo originates from the Mausoleum of Hadrian, wanted by the emperor himself in a peripheral area of ancient Rome. In 403 A.D, when it is interfered in the Aurelian Walls for order of the western emperor Honorius, the Mausoleum loses its original function. From now on, in fact, Castel Sant’Angelo becomes a fortress across the Tiber to defend the city. Many Roman families wished to claim possession because this seemed to guarantee them a position of prestige in the chaotic system of Urbe: it was a stronghold of Senator Theophylact, of Crescenzi, Pierleoni and Orsini families. It was Nicholas III, an Orsini pope, who made the Passetto di Borgo that links the Vatican to the Castle. When in 1367 the keys of Castel Sant’Angelo are given to Pope Urban V to urge the return from exile of the Avignon Curia in Rome, his fate is inextricably linked to that of the popes that turn it into a residence to stay away from harm.
Archives, court and prison
Castel Sant’Angelo, with its robust and secure facility, homes the Vatican Archives and the Treasury, but is also adjusted as court and prison. When the function of the Castle changed, mutate its appearance too through a series of interventions in the course of four centuries. New structures are juxtaposed with those already existing in a vortex that has little coherence and continuity. The castle is a complex of galleries, rooms, basements, patios and stairs.
The renovation at the hands of Julius II
Julius II for almost a year after its accession to the papal throne prefers to stay inside the castle rather than in the Vatican Palace. Pope assigns to Giuliano da Sangallo some work to improve the comfort of the papal apartments. The architect designed the Loggia to the Tiber which still today bears the name of Julius II, obtained by concealing a part of the trail that crowned the summit of the imposing circular fort. Michelangelo is instead called to perform the lateral facade of the small chapel dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian which closes one of the short sides of the Cortile d’Onore (now called the Angel’s Courtyard). Under the guidance of Antonio da Sangallo the Younger the external defense structures are strengthened and the Passetto di Borgo is completed, the elevated passage that links the Vatican Palace to the Castle.
Clement VII and the Sack of Rome in 1527
Under the command of Charles of Bourbon, May 6, 1527, an army of 18,000 mercenaries, mostly German mercenaries, besieged the City and managed to penetrate the Vatican. The soldiers massacred the Roman army, the Swiss Guard that defended the Palace and the Basilica of San Pietro, nuns and priests, even all the patients hospidalized to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit. A part of the population, about three thousand people, was able to find refuge within the walls of Castel Sant’Angelo as well as Clement VII. The invading army continued for seven days and seven nights to ravage the city in search of money and wealth. After a few days they were the first cases of plague among the mercenaries and after less than a week it spread to Rome, arriving at nip lives within the same castle. Despite this the fortress stood firm but after a month of siege, June 5, an imperial garrison was able to penetrate it making prisoner Clement VII and his entourage. Paul III, educated man, lover of literature and the arts, was keen to return to the seat of the papacy, the magnificence it had before the wounds of the sack of Rome in 1527. When he became Pope began a vast city fortification program, which included among the other things the construction of eighteen ramparts, of which only two were actually realized.
With the beginning of the seventeenth century, Castel Sant’Angelo lost its role as residence to become almost exclusively a prison. Carbonari and other patriots spent their days in captivity within these walls. That was at least until 20 September 1870, when Rome was elected the capital of the Kingdom of Italy. The new Rome required the implementation of urban plan changes: make room for the spacious avenues on the Tiber were abolished two bastions of the pentagonal walls, moats that surrounded the building were buried and were razed some of Pope Urban VII buildings.
What to see in Castel Sant’Angelo
The first place you will come across after entering Castel Sant’Angelo is a small yard, the backyard of the Savior, whose name originates from the marble bust depicting Christ dating back to the fifteenth century, previously inserted in the space of interior façade. Then there is the ambulatory of Boniface IX from which you enter on a large open space, the courtyard of the shootings, where took place the executions of the condemned. On this courtyard faces the Crucifix Chapel where the condemned were going before being executed. Today it houses the Museum bookshop.
The Mausoleum of Hadrian
The spiral ramp leads to the Urns Hall, the centerpiece of the Roman tomb. This place has a square plan and three of its sides are dug by quadrangular deep arched niches that had to accommodate the urns with the ashes of Hadrian, his wife Sabina and their son Cesare Elio.
The Angel’s Courtyard
The last stretch of the diametrical ramp leads into a square courtyard that has been called in different ways over the centuries: “court of honor”, “bell backyard” and “the shootings backyard”. Today it is known as “Angel’s Courtyard” since it was placed the statue of the Archangel Michael which until 1747 was located on the top floor.
The Hall of Justice
Then there is the Hall of Justice in which occurred several processes concluded often with no appeal death sentences. They were sentenced in this hall, among others, the two humanist Pomponio Leto and Platina, the ill-fated Beatrice Cenci and the philosopher Giordano Bruno.
The Hall of Apollo
The Hall of Apollo instead is part of the magnificent princely apartment that Pope Paul III built since 1534. The name of this room is because of the vault frescoes, the work of Perin del Vaga, representing episodes of the myth of Apollo. The tiled floor of the room has many openings, one in particular is a well 9 meters deep that could have been either a toilet or a trapdoor-trick to quickly free themselves from unwelcome guests.
The Giretto Scoperto instead consists of the perimeter walls built by Pope Alexander VII in 1657 to close the western hemicycle of the building. Here there are four rooms in which there is a collection of historical weapons of the castle. The Sala Paolina is for sure the most important place of the Farnese apartments and the entire Castle, used for reception of ambassadors and illustrious visitors with its majestic and imposing hall of honor.
The Angel’s Terrace
The Angel’s Terrace is overlooked by the angel bronze statue cast in 1752 by Peter Anton van Verschaffelt. In the upper left there is the so-called Bell of “the condemned” and “mercy” whose funeral knell proclaimed executions. This terrace serves as a background to the epilogue of one of the most famous plays of Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, from which the protagonist throws herself after killing the police chief Scarpia and the shooting of her lover Cavaradossi.
Opening hours: Mon – Sun (09.00 AM – 07.30 PM)
Admission: €14 adults, €7 18-25 years old, freen under 18
How to reach: bus Traspontina/Conciliazione (23, 34, 40, 982)
Address: Lungotevere Castello, 50, 00193 Roma RM