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**

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

Rome’s Pantheon…Did You Know?

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Michelangelo described the famous Pantheon in Rome perfectly after seeing it for the first time in the early 1500’s when he said it was “an angelic and not a human design.” The architecture is mind-blowing and incredibly devised. Built by Emperor Hadrian in 120 AD, it is the best preserved ancient Roman monument as well as a testament to the ingenuity of the early Romans and their fascinating knowledge of mathematics, balance, and measures. Read more

A Garden Stroll in the Green Heart of Rome

 

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The 18th century Fontana dei Cavalli Marini stands in the middle of a round plaza surrounded by trees and walkways at the Via Pinciana main entrance of the Borghese Gardens.

 

I woke up this morning inside my little mountain cabin in NW Oregon to a world as pristine, fresh and beautiful as can be imagined. With a steaming mug of coffee in hand, I stood in front of the window to observe the new day. The broad expanse of blue sky draped the valley below like a canopy, backed by the long silhouette of distant hills. Evergreen trees dusted with snow ran like rivulets down the hillside before me, skirting open meadows here and there.

My snow-covered deck dimpled in the sunlight. Chill air filled my lungs as I read the thermometer on the front porch. Only 24 degrees. Yet I felt beckoned to go for a long walk in the sunlight. To let the sun’s golden rays brush my face on this cold winter day.

I thought of another place and another time not so long ago. While in Rome on a much warmer day, my wandering feet took me from Piazza del Popolo and up to the Borghese Gardens. It was here that I found my heart-shaped green oasis away from the maddening crowds. Long roads of shade trees kept me cool as I explored the gardens. It quickly became my favorite place to walk in Rome. There is so much to see along the way, from playful, splashing fountains, gelato and refreshment stands, benches to rest, the zoo, and the Borghese Gallery. Several spots along the edge of the park offer gorgeous viewpoints to survey the expanse of the Eternal City.

For a moment I found myself suspended between two different worlds, each as beautiful as the other. Today I will enjoy my brisk walk in this winter wonderland while I dream of returning to that garden stroll in the green heart of Rome.