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 17th 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 majestically 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 a 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, the 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 was 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 the 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**

The Griffon and the Guelph Lion of Perugia

 

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Legendary animal symbols in Italy intrigue me and they usually impart some meaning to a particular place. While visiting the lively city of Perugia in Umbria, I saw the Griffon and the Guelph Lion bronzes, medieval symbols of Perugia, Read more

Assisi’s Stormy Farewell

EUROPE04 015The Feast of St. Francis was just ending the day I arrive in Assisi. Candlelight processions and merrymaking brought many pilgrims from far and near to take part in the celebration of their most beloved saint. Francis’ basilica flowed with heavenly music as choirs and orchestras let lose their poetic melodies. Souvenir booths lined the streets selling mementos while costumed revelers stroll the piazza in medieval attire. The Feast of St. Francis commemorated the saint’s transition from this life to the afterlife. It is Assisi’s biggest day of the year. Read more

A Colorful Evening in Trastevere, Rome

Trastevere

Located on the west bank of the Tiber River and south of Vatican City, Trastevere has a spirited medieval old-town feel. Greenwich Village in New York came to mind as I slowly made my way through the tightly winding streets. Quaint, comfortable, charming, incredible nightlife….Trastevere is all of these and more. Read more

Swim with Lord Byron in the Bay of Poets

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San Lorenzo Church near the Bay of Poets

“I’m glad I am a woman who once danced naked in the Mediterranean Sea at midnight.”                                                     -Mercedes McCambridge

Did you know that English poet Lord Byron swam across the bay of Portovenere to visit his fellow English muse, Shelley, who was residing in the village of San Terenzo? Hence comes the name of the cove, The Bay of Poets. Byron’s Grotto, called Grotta Arpaia, now collapsed, bears a plaque honoring Byron’s courage and strength in tackling the often tempestuous waters. Byron’s Grotto is located at the end of a promontory in Portovenere, below the 13th century Church of San Pietro. Ironically, it was in the bay that Shelley died when his boat overturned in a storm.

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Lord Byron – Original artist unknown, photo from en.wikipedia

 

Dante and Petrarch were dazzled by the natural beauty of the gulf as well. The Bay of Poets and Byron’s Grotto highlight the shimmering Mediterranean beauty stretched out to the horizon from Portovenere, located just below Cinque Terre and on the promontory tip from La Spezia. A longtime playground for celebrities and the notably wealthy, Portovenere has no lack of boating excursions, unique archaeological sites, neighborhoods of pastel-hued houses that tower above narrow winding streets, and swimming in Lord Byron’s Bay. The best beaches are at San Terenzo, now famous with beachside bathers and swimmers.

From the old district of town, you can walk the length of the road and onto a path which meanders down to the Church of San Pietro. From there a foot-path takes you down to the rocky edge of the bay. Swimming is a popular sport in the Bay of Poets, but the rocks underneath water can be sharp so some caution is advised.

The Byron Cup swimming challenge has traditionally been held in August, commemorating Lord Byron’s legendary swim across the Bay of Poets in 1822. A large number of swimmers register to swim the 7.5 km between Portovenere and Lerici.

Byron had many water escapades during his lifetime. A sportsman at heart, he was born with a club foot, which only inspired him to be more proficient in the water. He was the first person to swim across the Hellespont in 1810, known as the Dardanelles, the stretch of water that separates Europe from Asia. Later, after a night of revelry in the Lido, he swam across the Venice lagoon and down the entire length of the Grand Canal in three and three-quarters hours. Daring, dashing and bold, he proved himself unhindered by his physical lameness.

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Grotto Arpaia or Lord Byron’s Grotto

The Church of San Pietro stands majestically on the cliff overlooking the sea just above Byron’s Grotto. Fashioned in Gothic style with external markings of black and white stripes, it was built over a 5th century Palaeo-Christian church. The Church of San Pietro offers stunning views of the Cinque Terre coastline and has become a desirable place for weddings.

When next you arrive in Portovenere, saunter on down to Byron’s Bay and poke a foot in the water for the old poet. Chances are you will be compelled to slide on into the comforting warmth of the blue-green Mediterranean Sea.

For more information on The Bay of Poets and Portovenere, please click on the link below.

*The Bay of Poets maps, photos and tourist information