Mausoleum – Prison – Palace – Museum: An Excursion to Castel Sant’ Angelo in Rome
Through the centuries Castel Sant’Angelo has been all of these things.
The approach to the Castel Sant’Angelo is one of the most striking in Rome. The second century pedestrian bridge that was constructed in 134AD is dramatically lined with ten statues of angles. The most famous Angel -Angel with a Crown of Thorns - is actually a copy by Paolo Naldini. The original angel was commissioned by Pope Clement IX and sculpted by Bernini, but was deemed too beautiful for the bridge and is now housed in the church Sant’Andrea delle Frate near the Spanish Steps.
The circular monument now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo has had many functions over the centuries. It was originally constructed as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian in the middle of the second century. Once covered in bronze and statues and topped by a Quadriga - Four horsed chariot – these decorations and the funeral urns of many emperors and their families were lost in the Sack of Rome in the year 410.
An enormous statue of the Archangel Michael sits atop the Castel Sant’Angelo. . During the reign of Pope Gregory I, Rome was in the grips of years of terrible plague. According to legend, in the year 590, a vision of the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword was seen hovering above the monument. This vision was then attributed to seemingly miraculous ending of the plague years and eventually a statue was commissioned in commemoration. This imposing work you see now was created by t in 1753.
In medieval times the structures function was transformed from mausoleum to fortress. Emperor Aurelian had defensive walls and lookout towers constructed as defense against invasions from the barbarians.
Castel Sant’Angelo’s next function was to be come a fortress and papal castle. This transformation began the fourteenth century. This was a time of great unrest for papal power with the powerful noble families of Rome. Pope Nicholas III Connected the nearby Saint Peters Basilica to the castle with the Passetto di Borgo.
In 1527 Pope Clement VII took refuge from the ravaging army of Charles V inside the now fortress, by way of the covered Passetto d Borgo, and began to convert the many rooms into a habitable palace.
Castel Sant’Angelo was also used as a prison Giordano Bruno was imprisoned here for his Copernican beliefs.
Here are some of Tour Italy Now’s insider tips of the highlights to be found inside the centuries old structure.
The architectural spiral ramp that leads to what was once the palace of Popes was a mosaic covered floor area and is where the funeral urns were kept. That ramp then leads to the main courtyard. This vast courtyard is filled with cannons, ammunition and catapults.
Centuries ago the castle and it’s rooms were also used to store enormous reserves of food, to be used in the event of an attack. There were enormous water tanks, granaries and even a mill.
On the fourth floor on the outer ring of the circular structure are the lavishly decorated rooms of Pope Clement VIII and the Loggia di Paolo III with it’s frescoed ceilings and hallways. The Loggia di Guilio affords a beautiful view of the Ponte Sant’Angelo. You do not want to miss the magnificent Renaissance Papal apartments particularly the Camera di Amore e Pisce with a frieze illustrating the story of Venus’ son and the beautiful young women he loved.
Your climb to the very top of Castel Sant’Angelo will be rewarded with a breathtaking view of the city of Rome. See if you can spot some of the eternal city’s most famous monuments from this birds eye viewpoint.
The Terrazza is of particular importance for opera lovers. The last act of the Giacomo Puccini’s tragic Tosca takes place here. This spot is where Cavaradossi sings of his love for Tosca with one of the most beloved of all opera arias “E lucevan le stelle,” and where Tosca flings herself off the high rooftop to her death.
Traveling with a grumpy teenage video game fan? The monument features in the very popular Assassins creed.
In the summer months there are some very special events that happen at Castel Sant’Angelo.
In the evening on June 28, the day of celebration for Rome’s patron Saints Peter and Paul, there is an incredible display of fireworks known as the Girandola. This video shows the spectacular event. A tradition started in 1471 to celebrate the election of a new Pope, as well as on Easter and for the feast of Saint Peter and Paul. Tourists from all over Europe would travel to see this spectacular show. In 2008 the tradition was revived and the show deigned by Michelangelo for Pope Julius II has again become a much anticipated annual event.
During the summer months the Castel Sant’Angelo and the surrounding area are host to evening opera, classical jazz and pop concerts. Along the river Tiber you will find bustling market and food stalls. There are special openings of the Passetto di Borgo, the historical prisons and Clement VII’s bathroom.