Castel St. Angelo


Castel St. Angelo

Castel St. AngeloAlso called Mausoleo di Adriano, Castel St. Angelo is a microcosm of Rome: layer upon layer, building upon building - a palimpsest. This most magnificent of all the Roman imperial tombs became a fortress in the Middle Ages and a Papal pleasure dome in the Renaissance. Perhaps the most pleasurable single monument Rome offers you.

The original 2C AD tomb was 6 stories high, like a monumental birthday cake, sheathed in marble and topped with a man-made hill dotted with cypresses and sculptures - the largest of which was Emperor Hadrian in a chariot driving four prancing horses!

Because of the unplanned way it evolved, you will have difficulty finding your way around the Castello. At the entrance, take a good look in the hall on the left at the marvelous scale model of Emperor Hadrian's grandiose Mausoleum. Further on is another model showing the building as a medieval fort.

Mausoleum of AdrianYou must go down to the lower level to enter the Castello itself. Once inside, you wind up through the center of the building, on a giant corkscrew ramp of Roman bricks, leading to the tombs of the Emperor. Receptacles containing their ashes were placed against the walls on either side of this large vaulted area.

Don't miss the wooden planks at the beginning and end of the causeway which passes over this room: they were devised as drawbridges which could be removed in the event of an attack, making it impossible for the enemy to get to the upper part of the fort.

You emerge into the sunlight at the Courtyard of the cannonballs. On the wall are numerous plaques engraved with the number of balls and their sizes so that under siege the soldiers could quickly bring the right size to the right cannon.

Visit the exhibit of Medieval and Renaissance weapons in the low building on your right.

On your left is Pope Paul III's apartments, usually housing a temporary exhibit.

Pope Clement VII installed a heated bathtub in a tiny room exquisitely decorated by followers of Raphael, but for which you will have to ask directions because it is agonizingly difficult to find.
This bath signaled the reintroduction of personal cleanliness, which had gone out of style since the great Roman
Baths of Caracalla and Diocletian were shut down in the 6C when the barbarians cut off the aqueducts.

Courtyard of the Cannon BallsUp the stairs are beautiful views through the parapets.

Do not miss the elegantly appointed apartments on the next two floors, which various Popes occupied over a period spanning the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The two “trompe l’oeil” paintings of people on stairs in the doorways of the big room are marvelous.

Go through to the right to see the small audience chamber, and in the last room in this area the Papal bedroom; it is rather sparse but imagine the walls groaning with tapestries and you'll get the picture.

Then proceed along the narrow highly frescoed corridor to the next rooms, replete with frescoes on the ceiling (somewhere here is a very explicit picture of a man shooting an arrow at - ahem, gentlemen!) You will understand that these rooms were decorated for the Borgia Pope Alexander VI, who was no prude.

Go next to view the Papal treasure chamber, with an inordinately large metal trunk; imagine it filled with gold, precious jewels and sculpted silver spilling out over the top.

Now proceed up the stairs to see the view over all of Rome from the very top deck, next to the sculpted Archangel Michael: it is unforgettable. It is also the setting for the finale of Puccini's opera “Tosca”, when the heroine leaps to her death from the parapet.

On the level above the Courtyard of the cannonballs is a Sandwich Bar where you can sit inside or out and have a coffee, tea or beer with sandwiches, while you contemplate the various epochs which this monument represents in its 1800 year history.

Also a bookshop leaving the building.

Castel St. Angelo


135 AD. Emperor Hadrian began this family vault, unfinished when he died three years later.

139. Emperor Antoninus Pius completed it and for almost three-quarters of a century, from Hadrian to Septimius Severus, it was the repository for the emperors' ashes.

590. During a procession to stop the plague, Pope Gregory the Great saw a vision of the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword at the top of the mausoleum. The Pope promised that if God stopped the plague, he would build a memorial to the Archangel. The plague stopped and Gregory kept his vow. The Baroque angel soaring above the castle commemorates that.

Middle Ages. For a thousand years the Popes used this structure as Rome's Citadel and dungeon in their continuous struggle against the feudal barons and the Holy Roman Emperors. They raised defensive fortifications and added watchtowers at the corners, named after the four Evangelists.

Renaissance. The great Popes topped the Castello with a chapel by Michelangelo, loggias by Bramante and Antonio Sangallo Jr., paintings from the school of Raphael, a theater-court and a papal hot tub.

1752. The flamboyant bronze sculpture of St. Michael the Archangel by the Flemish artist Peter Verschaffelt was installed at the top, replacing a Renaissance marble angel, now in the Courtyard of the cannonballs.

From the rear bastion to the Vatican runs Il Passetto di Borgo and The Leonine Wall.

Lungotevere Castello, Lungotevere Vaticano (Map D 3)

Leonine Walls

(Mura Leonine o Passetto di Borgo). Originally part of a defensive wall, a corridor near the top of this "Pope-duct" permitted the Pontiff to flee the Vatican and reach the security of Castel St. Angelo without going down to the street.

Leonine Walls


846. Saracens landed in Ostia, stormed up the Tiber and plundered the treasure from basilicas outside the city walls, including unprotected St. Peter's.

852. Pope Leo IV (later St. Leo) dedicated the new Leonine City, protecting it with 2 miles of walls and 46 defensive turrets, that finally put the Vatican and the adjacent Borgo quarter within Rome's defensive system.

1410. Antipope John XXIII added a covered passage through this section of the wall.

1494. Pope Alexander VI Borgia escaped via this passage during the invasion by King Charles VIII of France.

1500. Jubilee year. The Borgia Pope rededicated this part of the Leonine Wall and completed his "Corridor" so that he could move unseen between his apartments in the Vatican and those he built in Castel Sant'Angelo.

1527. The Sack of Rome. Pope Clement VII Medici, bastard and insecure, changed sides so many times in the wars between King François I of France and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V that the latter finally unleashed his troops against the Pope. Hapless Clement hitched up his cassock and dashed the length of this overhead "Corridor of Alexander VI" to the safety of Castel St. Angelo. Under siege, however, he surrendered and crowned Charles Emperor three years later.

Borgo Sant’Angelo (Map D 3)