Castel Sant’Angelo: A Turbulent Tale of Angels and Demons

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Dan Brown’s book, “Angels and Demons” flashed through my mind as I crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo one morning in Rome. Ten Baroque statues of angels line the bridge, each bearing a symbol of the suffering and death of Christ. Designed by Bernini in the early 18th century, they look down demurely at passersby from their travertine marble perches. They feel like a silent presence, outwardly still but internally watchful.

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Angel on the Ponte Sant’Angelo
Castel Sant’Angelo awaits at the end of the bridge. Reminding me of a cross between a king’s crown and a wedding cake, it stands majestic among the monuments of Rome. Packed with history, it has been here for 2,000 years. Emperor Hadrian had this huge cylinder built in 139 AD as a mausoleum for himself and his family. However, for nearly 100 years after Hadrian’s death, it continued as the burial grounds for succeeding emperors as well, ending with Caracalla 217 AD.

Over the past 2,000 years, Castel Sant’Angelo has been more than a funerary monument. It was used as a fortified outpost, a notorious prison complete with torture chamber, a palace for the popes embellished with Renaissance art, the keep of the Vatican treasury and finally a museum.

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Model of Hadrian’s Mausoleum
What I discovered as I toured the fortress, now the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo, fascinated me. At the time of Hadrian, the mausoleum was topped by a garden of Cypress trees and crowned by a golden quadriga, a huge statue of him riding a chariot. It was the tallest building in Rome.

In ancient Rome, tombs were not allowed inside the city limits. This pertained to the emperors as well, even though they were looked upon as gods. So Hadrian chose a commanding position just outside the city walls and across the river. Even today, it holds a stately presence among the many monuments of Rome.

It helps to get a bit organized so i’ve included a brief overview of the 6 levels of Castel Sant’Angelo:

Level 1- Begins the winding Roman construction ramp, the Courtyard of the Shooting and the Chapel of the Condemned.

Level 2- Hall of Urns, former prisons and storerooms

Level 3- Military displays, papal apartments, courtyard of the angel (Cortile dell’Angel), which houses the former archangel, Hall of Justice

Level 4- Exquisitely decorated papal apartment with sumptuous frescoes by artists of the school of Raphael (Luca Signorelli, Carlo Crivelli), archaeological gallery, historic armory.

Level 5- Treasury, Library

Level 6- The Angel Terrace providing amazing views of Rome, especially the Vatican and St. Peters Basilica

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A look at Castel Sant’Angelo and the Passetto di Borgo ( the pope’s secret escape). Drawing by Ludovico Bisi, from “Short visit to Castel Sant’Angelo.” Photo courtesy of National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo.
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Upon entering, an old cobbled road winds around the base. This fortress has a lot of stairs. One leads down to the original Roman floor and follows the route of Hadrian’s funeral procession. There is a bridge that crosses the room where the ashes of the emperors were kept. The urns and ashes were scattered by Visigoth looters during a sacking of Rome in 410.

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Inside the Treasury
The Sala del Tesoro is the treasury where the Vatican wealth was kept locked up in a huge chest. The rooms are ornately decorated with rich frescoes and marble.

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The former angel used to crown the top is now kept in a courtyard, called Cortile dell’Angelo
The Passetto di Borgo is intriguing in itself and historically fascinating. You have probably heard of an elevated fortified corridor commissioned in 1277 AD by Pope Nicholas III leading from Vatican City to the Castel Sant’Angelo (thanks to Dan Brown). The passage served as an escape route to the Castle for popes during times of war and sackings.

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The ‘Passetto di Borgo’ runs along the top from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo. All three photos courtesy of National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo
Castel Sant'Angelo passetto inside
Inside the pope’s passageway
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Yellow line indicating the route of the passageway from Castel Sant’Angelo to Vatican City
Enjoy a gallery of photos from my day spent inside this massive fortress. It would take a book to explain everything. One of several things that impressed me were the circular walkways leading up and down within. Wide and tall, they were lit with the golden light from wall lamps. Effectively mysterious…

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The Angel Terrace offers dazzling views of Rome from several directions. The wind was gusty so walking from one end to the other for a view was slightly challenging.

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Angel’s Terrace
It’s from here you can get up close to the majestic Archangel Michael, who stands on the very top. As I gazed up into his face, I had no doubt that he means business.

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So what’s the deal about the angel Michael? As the story goes, in the year 590, the Archangel Michael appeared above the mausoleum to Pope Gregory. The angel sheathed his sword, and the pope took it as a sign that the plague was ended. It soon became a fortified palace renamed castle of the holy angel.

Close beside the Archangel Michael is a large bell, called the Bell of Mercy. Beginning in the mid 1700’s it was wrung to inform the people of capital executions of the prisoners while a prison.

As the grand finale, enjoy some views of Rome taken from the Angel’s Terrace 

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St. Peters Basilica 
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Zoomed in on Rome! Can you figure out some of the monuments?
**Resources used are from the National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo**

16 thoughts on “Castel Sant’Angelo: A Turbulent Tale of Angels and Demons

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