Castel Sant’Angelo, also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian or the Castle of the Holy Angel, is a monument located on the right bank of the Tiber. You can reach the castle by crossing the famous Ponte Sant’Angelo. The monument is located within a short distance of the Vatican, between the Borgo and Prati districts, and is connected to Vatican City by a fortified escape route called Passetto di Borgo.
When visiting Castel Sant’Angelo, you can explore the ancient dungeons and prisons, attend music and entertainment performances, climb to the castle’s highest point, and enjoy a beautiful view of the city.
History of the Castel Sant’Angelo
The castle attracts more than a million visitors each year. The circular structure is surrounded by massive walls and stands 48 meters above the ground. A visit to this place is an exciting journey through time dating from 2,000 years ago to the present.
The building which we know today as a world-famous museum, previously had the function of a monumental tomb, fortress, prison, private residence, and military headquarters.
Imperial period (27 BC - 476 AD)
The great Mausoleum of Hadrian was built between 123 and 139 AD under the direction of the architect Decrianus. It was inspired by the Mausoleum of Augustus but with larger dimensions. To connect the building to Campus Martius on the other side of the Tiber, the Pons Aelius (now called the St. Angelo Bridge or Bridge of Angels) was opened in 134.
After Hadrian’s death, his successor Antoninus Pius continued the work and the mausoleum eventually became the final resting place of several emperors and their families. Among them: emperor Hadrian and his wife Vibia Sabina, emperor Antoninus Pius, his wife Faustina Major and three of their children, emperor Lucius Aelius Caesar, emperor Commodus, emperor Marcus Aurelius and three of his sons, emperor Septimius Severus, his wife Julia Domna and their sons, and emperors Geta and Caracalla.
The original mausoleum consisted of a square space 83 meters wide and 15 meters high. It was lined with marble on the outside, and the frieze was decorated with ox heads (bucrania) and festoons (also called garlands). On top of this was a cylindrical building with a diameter of 64 m and a height of 21 m. Above the cylinder was a tower with three burial chambers, which has now been incorporated into the newer parts of the building.
At the top where the statue of the archangel now stands, there was probably a bronze statue of Emperor Hadrian as a sun god pulled by a quadriga. The perimeter of the monument was surrounded by statues, the remains of which have been preserved to this day. The most intact of these is the famous Barberini Faun. There was also a wall around the perimeter with a bronze gate decorated with peacocks.
Medieval era (476 - 1492)
In 403 AD, after the numerous incursions of barbarians and looters into the city, the mausoleum lost part of its function. By order of the western emperor Honorius, it was connected to the Aurelian Walls to become part of the city’s defense system. Since then, it was given the function of a (fortified) castle.
The fortress saved the Vatican from the plundering by the Vandals of Genseric in 455. The Romans then decided to counterattack with literally everything at their disposal. Even the aforementioned statue, the Barberini Faun, was thrown at the enemies. And in the early sixth century, the building was used by Theodoric as a state prison.
It’s said that the castle received its current name in 590. At that time, the city was hit by the plague, until one day something miraculous happened. According to legend, Pope Gregory I saw in a vision how archangel Michael on top of the castle slipped his sword back into its sheath as a sign that the epidemic had ended. More details on the origin of the castle’s name can be found later in this article.
Many families competed for ownership of the castle including the senator Theophylactus and his family—who also used it as a prison—and the Crescenzi family, who fortified the castle and named it Castrum Crescentii.
It was Pope Orsini Niccolò III who in 1277 ordered the construction of the Passetto di Borgo, an escape route connecting the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City with Castel Sant’Angelo. He also decided to partially transfer the Holy See there. Later the castle came into the hands of the Pierleoni and Orsini families, who ceded it to the Church in 1365.
In 1367, the keys to the building were handed over to Pope Urban V. From that moment on, especially after its destruction by a French garrison, Castel Sant’Angelo linked its fate to that of the popes. Because of its fortified structure, the popes used it as a refuge in times of danger, to house the Vatican archives and treasury, as a court, and as a prison.
After the reconstruction commissioned by Pope Boniface IX in 1395, the castle regained its former function. The Pope commissioned the military architect Nicolò Lamberti to carry out several works to strengthen the defensive structure of the castle. The shape of the entrance to the building was redefined and the chapel dedicated to Archangel Michael was rebuilt.
Renaissance (1492 - 1789)
Throughout the 16th century, the castle’s defenses were improved and the halls were decorated more and more beautifully. Architect Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (known from Saint Peter’s Basilica) was partly responsible for this. It seems that Pope Alexander VI had a new part built, transforming the castle into a place for banquets and performances, which was demolished by Pope Urban VIII in 1628. Remarkably, the part in question was painted by the famous Pinturicchio.
However, it was the fortification works of Pope Alexander VI that enabled Pope Clement VII to withstand the siege of the famous Landsknechte for seven months. Examples were the construction of four pentagonal bastions, dedicated to the Evangelists, and the moat dug around the walls filled with the water of the Tiber.
On May 6, 1527, the army of 25,000 German and Spanish soldiers led by Charles V took over the city. During the Sack of Rome, nothing or no one was safe. Destruction, robbery, rape, and murder took place. In addition, a new plague epidemic broke out. In the end, 20,000 citizens were killed, 10,000 fled and 30,000 died from the plague brought by the invaders.
However, a small part of the population at the time (of the 50-60 thousand in total) and Pope Clement VII himself were able to reach the Castel Sant’Angelo for shelter via the Passetto di Borgo. On June 7, 1527, the pope surrendered and was forced to open the fortress to the enemy. In 1530 he was obliged to crown Charles V as emperor.
Between 1667 and 1669, after further renovations, Clement IX had the ten famous marble angels placed on the Pons Aelius. Since then, it has also been called the St. Angelo Bridge. In the 19th century, the castle was used exclusively as a political prison and was known as Fort Sant’Angelo.
Contemporary age (1789 - present)
During the Napoleonic era, when Rome was occupied by the revolutionary army, Pius VI Braschi (1775-1799) was forced into a humiliating exile and the garrison stationed in the castle surrendered. The powder magazines were handed over, the documents of the Vatican Apostolic Archives were sealed with the papal coat of arms, and the papal banner was replaced with the French tricolor.
Even the bronze statue of the archangel was painted in the three French national colors, was proclaimed the “Genius of the Liberation of France” and a red Phrygian cap was placed on his head. All the papal coats of arms affixed to the walls of the fortress and the ramparts, as a reminder of the work done over the centuries, were removed.
When French troops withdrew from Rome in October 1799, the flag of the Kingdom of Naples was placed on the fortress. It remained there until the castle was returned to the army of Pope Pius VII (1800-1823).
Upon their departure from Castel Sant’Angelo, the Bourbon soldiers emptied the storerooms, took artillery and ammunition, furniture and upholstery, and even removed the glass from the windows, the doors, and water pipes. All that remained of the castle was the prison and a base for the troops to defend it.
After the creation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, the fortress was initially used as a barracks, then converted into a museum. The castle has seen a succession of different restoration works. Those of 1886-1887, for example, were necessary for the construction of the new banks of the Tiber and were entrusted to two officers of the Genio Militare, Mariano Borgatti, and Enrico Rocchi.
The major renovations in Castel Sant’Angelo and its surroundings continued through the early 20th century. Until 1911 when the World Exhibition dedicated to art and culture was held in Rome. Between 1914 and 1915, the process of demilitarization of the castle was completed, with the castle being definitively assigned to the Ministry of Education, while only the surrounding area remained with the Ministry of War.
During World War I, works of art from the war zones were stored in the fortress, including bronze horses from the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. In the years between the wars, the idea of isolating the majesty of the castle in the city gardens prevailed. The result was the demolition of all the structures that had been built in the area over the centuries and the destruction of even more historical documents about the complex history of the fortress.
The building’s long and varied history, with its countless transformations, seems to have nestled in the intricate labyrinth of underground corridors, dwellings, loggias, staircases, and courtyards that make up the castle’s current layout. Today, it’s a multifaceted and complex structure, full of symbolic values and historical layers. In 2019, the museum was visited by 1.2 million people, ranking it among the top five most visited museums in Italy.
Exploring Castel Sant’Angelo
As mentioned in the historical section of this article, the museum consists of various works and buildings that have been added and modified over time, which contribute to its grandeur.
The castle is composed of levels, each with its rooms, works, and monuments. Let’s run through the most significant things you can expect to see when you visit.
Located here are il Cortile del Salvatore (the Courtyard of the Redeemer), l’Ambulacro di Bonifacio IX (the Ambulatory of Boniface IX), la Cappella dei Condannati (the Chapel of the Condemned), il Cortile delle Fucilazioni (the Courtyard of the Shooting), the Dromos, the Atrium, and the spiral ramp that runs from bottom to top of the building.
Courtyard del Salvatore
Upon entering, the first thing you encounter is a small courtyard, il Cortile del Salvatore, which owes its name to the fifteenth-century marble bust of Christ called Busto del Salvatore. Between the walls of the square plateau and the base of the cylinder wall runs a circular corridor, l’Ambulacro di Bonifacio IX.
Ambulacrum of Boniface IX
The corridor was constructed in the late 14th century to adapt the structure to new defense requirements. On the initiative of Pope Boniface IX Tomacelli, the walls from Roman times that delineated the radial cells that originally formed the base of the mausoleum have been uncovered. Fragments of statues and architectural elements can be seen along the circular route. Through this corridor, you enter another courtyard, il Cortile delle Fucilazioni.
Courtyard of Executions
Il Cortile delle Fucilazioni is located in the northeast corner of the quadrangular walls, adjacent on the north side to the armory of Clement X, known today as the Chapel of the Condemned. The courtyard of executions received its name because non-public death sentences were carried out here.
Chapel of the Condemned
The chapel overlooks the Courtyard of Executions and was originally a porch that served as a powder magazine. Around the middle of the eighteenth century, it turned into a chapel. Its name refers to the prisoners who stayed in Castel Sant’Angelo over the centuries. Unfortunately, the chapel cannot be visited at present.
Dromos and Atrium
The entrance of the funeral procession to the imperial tomb was formed by a 12-meter long corridor with high vaults, the Dromos, which was an extension of the Pons Aelius, today’s Ponte Sant’Angelo. The corridor leads to a square cell, the Atrium, at the end of which is a large niche in which once stood an imposing statue of Emperor Hadrian. Of this statue, only the head remains and can be found in the Round Hall of the Vatican Museums.
This helical ramp begins at the Atrium and curves inside the Mausoleum, bridging a 12-meter height difference. Originally, this slope led directly to the burial chamber, called the Hall of Urns, which we will discuss later in this article. The ramp was constructed for the funeral procession that would accompany the emperor on his final journey and it has no openings on the outside except to the top.
Located here are the Cordonata di Paolo III, the Marcia Ronda, the Bastione San Matteo, the Bastione San Marco, the Bastione San Luca, the Bastione San Giovanni, the Passetto di Borgo, the diametrical ramp, the Sala delle Urne (Hall of Urns) and the Armeria di Clemente X (the Armory of Clement X).
Cordonata di Paolo III
Near the entrance door, a ramp was built in 1545 to replace an older staircase. At the foot of the stairs is a marble sphere supported by a pillar. Originally it was engraved with three large initials intertwined with the monogram: C.T.P., or Crispo Tiberio Prefetto, cabinetmaker during the pontificate of Paul III. Along the slope, in two niches, is the bust of Emperor Hadrian.
The walking path known as Marcia Ronda is located at the top of the outer walls, the perimeter of the ancient base of Hadrian’s Mausoleum. The path connects the four bastions (named after the four evangelists) located at the corners of the walls, which were mainly walked by the guards of Castel Sant’Angelo.
The four bastions
The construction of the four bastions (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John), located at each corner of the ancient base of Hadrian’s Mausoleum, was initiated by Pope Nicholas V between 1447 and 1455 to adapt the defensive aspect of the castle to the introduction of firearms. However, the bastion of Matthew was rebuilt fifty years later and reinforced by Urban VIII Barberini in 1625.
Passetto di Borgo
The Passetto di Borgo is a protected route that was constructed to ensure the Pope’s safety during his movements from his residence in the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo. It was also used by Clement VII Medici to seek refuge in the castle during the Sack of Rome in 1527. The Passetto, which is accessed through a small entrance at Bastione San Marco, is about 800 meters long.
The passageway, long believed to be a creation from the time of Alexander VI Borgia (1492-1503), is, in reality, an ingenious work by architect Niccolò Lamberti for Boniface IX Tomacelli (1389-1404). The slope takes the form of a 16th-century staircase, rising to a height where it makes a ninety-degree turn to the left, before continuing upward, into the open air, to the level of the courtyards.
Hall of Urns
The hall (traversed by the slope mentioned above) is the fulcrum of the Roman tomb. It’s the most sacred place of the lower part of the mausoleum where the remains of the imperial family were preserved until the time of Caracalla.
On the left wall of the room is a marble tombstone with a special inscription in Latin. They are the words Emperor Hadrian is said to have dedicated to himself: “Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore”.
Armory of Clement X
The building stands against the Bastione San Luca, on the northeast corner of the castle. In 1670 it was modified to accommodate the new prisons on the mezzanine floor, while the upper floor, similar to the bastion’s stronghold, probably retained its function as an armory. The portico on the first floor, a powder magazine, was later converted into a house of prayer, known as the Chapel of the Condemned, mentioned before.
This level contains the prison and stores for grains and oil.
The famous prison
The prison accessible from the Courtyard of Alexander VI are a series of underground halls whose construction or expansion is probably due to Alexander VI Borgia. The main staircase leads to a large rectangular room, the Parlatoio. This is followed by a narrow, annular corridor along which the low entrance doors to three cells are arranged.
Storage areas for grains and oil
Adjacent to the prison cells are numerous niches that extend along with the layout of the structure. There are also two large halls containing 83 terracotta jars (probably dating from the Middle Ages) that were originally used to store oil. The reserve was essential for lighting the rooms but grain and food were also stored here.
Located here are il Cortile dell’Angelo (the Courtyard of the Angel), le Armerie (the Armory), le Sale di Clemente VIII (the Halls of Clement VIII), la Sala della Giustizia (the Hall of Justice), la Sala di Apollo (the Apollo Room), la Cappella di Leone X (the Chapel of Leo X), le Sale di Clemente VII (the Halls of Clement VII), il Cortiletto di Leone X (the little room of Leo X), il Bagnetto di Clemente VII (the Bathroom of Clement VII), il Cortile di Alessandro VI (the Courtyard of Alexander VI) and le Salette di Alessandro VI (the Halls of Alexander VI).
The Courtyard of the Angel
Between 1513 and 1549, the court took on its present form. It was intended as a reception area and access to the papal apartments on the top floor of the castle.
The courtyard is rectangular and runs from north to south. On one side it borders the Armoury building and on the other side the rooms of the papal residence. In the center of the courtyard is the statue of the holy archangel Michael, to whom the castle is dedicated after his legendary appearance, as mentioned earlier.
On the west side of the courtyard is a low building currently known as the Armory. The building consists of two levels: at the courtyard level is the lower armory and at the level of the Giretto di Alessandro VII, the upper armory.
The room was mainly used as weapon storage for the guards of the upper part of the castle.
The Halls of Clement VIII
While the Sala di Apollo performed official functions, these two halls were reserved by the popes for private use. They’re named after the pope who ordered their decoration.
The inscription of Pope Clement VII Medici (1523-1534) can still be seen today in the center of the beautiful ceilings. In the first room, you will find painted cherubs in the frieze and a door leading to il Cortiletto di Leone X (a small private room). In the second room, a door gave direct access to the Bagnetto di Clemente VII.
The Hall of Justice
Numerous trials were held in this room, often resulting in death sentences. Among others, the two humanists Pomponius Leto and Platina, the unfortunate Beatrice Cenci, and the philosopher Giordano Bruno were condemned in this room.
The large frescoes on the back wall are the work of Domenico Zaga. The paintings were altered in later periods but probably depict the appearance of the archangel Michael with his attributes of justice. The hall was also used as a chapel.
The Apollo Room
The Apollo Hall is part of the impressive palatial residence that Pope Paul III had built starting in 1534. The name of this room comes from the series of frescoes on the vault depicting episodes from the myth of Apollo. The floor has several openings, one of which is nine feet deep and may have been a trap door to quickly get rid of unwanted guests.
The Chapel and Courtyard of Leo X
Of the several chapels documented in the castle, only this one remains. It was built on the orders of Leo X Medici (1513-1521) and dedicated to Saints Cosmas and Damian, patrons of the Medici family. The room includes a carpet with a lion in the center and an altar from the early 20th century with a bas-relief of Mary with baby Jesus (carved by Raffaello da Montelupo).
There’s also a small courtyard, built around 1514, better known as “del forno” (of the oven). This is where the fire was lit to heat the bathwater of Clement VII above. Evidence of this can be seen in the opening still visible in the wall.
The Halls and the Bathroom of Clement VII
The Cortile dell’Angelo gives access to two interconnected rooms that are completely bare. The shape of the two halls of Clemens VIII has undergone several transformations over time. Recent renovations have added various architectural elements from demolished or altered parts, such as the coat of arms of Pope Altieri.
The Bagnetto di Clemente VII has a rectangular room with a bath for the papal residence. It was equipped with an advanced heating system inspired by Roman baths. The bath was connected to a furnace located on the adjacent Cortile di Leone X. Furthermore, the room is decorated with sphinxes, dolphins, and fanciful sea creatures that provide an aquatic theme.
The Courtyard and the Salette of Alexander VI
The Courtyard of Alexander VI—also called theater because of the performances held there for Pope Leo X Medici (1513-1521)—is characterized by a semicircular space in the shape of a cylinder. The building has two levels and closes the courtyard to the south. On the first floor, numerous doors give access to small coherent rooms. Above them, there’s a row of small square windows and some damaged images of gods.
The Salette is a series of small rooms in a semicircle facing the Cortile di Alessandro VI, which originally served the prisons below. Today, it houses the permanent exhibition Immagini di Castello (Images of the Castle), a selection of paintings, drawings, and prints from the museum’s collection, which illustrates the evolution of the monument over the centuries.
On this floor, you’ll find the Loggia di Giulio II, the Giretto and Salette di Pio IV (circular corridor with small rooms), the Loggia di Paolo III, the Giretto di Alessandro VII, the Sala Paolina, the Sala del Perseo, the Sala di Amore e Psiche (Room of Cupid and Psyche), and the four armories.
The Loggia di Giulio II and the Loggia di Paolo III
The loggia overlooking the Tiber is breathtaking. Moreover, it’s the official entrance to the Sala Paolina, a frescoed space with two side wings. The structure consists of a white marble parapet, a pair of freestanding columns, and two half columns set against the jambs. The pope’s heraldic motif is repeated in the capitals of the columns. The four Latin mottoes, inscribed in painted cartouches in the vault, refer to this portico space’s function, which Julius II designed as a “loggia of blessings.”
The Loggia di Paolo III, on the other hand, looked north toward the Vatican. It also gave access to the private residences of Paul III Farnese (1534-1549). It was completed in 1543 and is characterized by five arches supported by pillars, a frieze in relief with lilies, the coat of arms of the Farnese family, and decorated parapets depicting episodes from the life of Emperor Hadrian.
The Giretto and Salette di Pio IV
The covered Giretto, built during the pontificate of Pius IV Medici (1559-1565), is an annular corridor leading out through brick arches. A series of small doors, with marble architraves with the name of the Pope Pius IIII Pont. Max. on them, give access to the second floor of the building built to close off the Courtyard of Alexander VI below. Inside are numerous small rooms (salette) that originally served the artillery and were later converted into less severe prisons.
The Giretto di Alessandro VII
This uncovered giretto is part of the annular corridor delineated by the loggias of Julius II and Paul III and accessed by the two ramps leading up from the Cortile dell’Angelo. It was built around 1657 by Alexander VII Chigi, in accordance with the western hemicycle of the castle and by analogy with the covered giretto. Along the way, there are numerous views of the west and St. Peter’s Basilica.
The Sala Paolina is undoubtedly one of the most important places in the castle, and also the reception room of the residence of Paul III Farnese (1534-1549). The majestic and imposing hall of honor was used to receive ambassadors and important visitors. Most of its decoration was inspired by Alexander the Great and St. Paul, making it one of the most important artistic heritage of sixteenth-century Rome.
Sala del Perseo
This room was the study of Paul III Farnese. It’s connected to the bedroom (la Sala di Amore e Psiche) and, by a staircase, to the Bathroom of Clement VII below. Among the various decorative elements, the figure of the archangel Michael painted in relief stands out, as does that of Perseus, the hero of Greek mythology. The frieze of frescoes consists of six panels depicting his exploits, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
The Room of Cupid and Psyche
As mentioned earlier, this was the authentic and precious bedroom of Paul III Farnese (1534-1549). It was furnished between 1545 and 1546 by Perin del Vaga and helpers.
Apart from the prominent coat of arms of Farnese, one can admire the frescoed frieze, framed by painted curtains, which is divided into nine panels with episodes from the fairy tale of Cupid and Psyche.
The four communicating rooms named “Upper Armoury” display only a limited selection of the National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo’s collection of weapons, armor, and military relics, which totals about 6,000 items.
On this level are the Corridoio Pompeiano (Pompeian corridor), the Sala della Biblioteca (Library), the Sala dell’Adrianeo (Hall of Hadrian), the Sala dei Festoni (Hall of Garlands), the Sala del Tesoro (Treasury), the Cagliostra, and the apartment of the castellan.
The Pompeian Corridor
The passageway that connects the Sala Paolina with the Sala della Biblioteca is known as the Corridoio Pompeiano because of the pictorial decoration, created in the style of Roman painting from the Augustan period, that covers it. Just over a meter wide and with barrel vaults, it was created in the 16th century from a gallery.
The room owes its name to its proximity to the most protected part of the fortress, which from the mid-15th century was intended for the papal treasury and secret archives, the Sala del Tesoro. This room, the centerpiece of the northern wing of Paolo III Farnese’s apartment, was embellished in 1544 with a luxurious decorative ensemble. On the eastern wall, above the large fireplace, on either side of the papal coat of arms, are the two imposing allegorical figures of the Church and Rome.
The Hall of Hadrian
The room was given this name on the insistence of Mariano Borgatti, the first director of the National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo, who discovered the murals under the plaster during restoration work in 1902. Together with the adjacent Sala dei Festoni, it was one of the first rooms completed during the works promoted in Castel Sant’Angelo by Paul III Farnese (1534-1549).
The Hall of Garlands
The Sala dei Festoni refers to the continuous undulating movement suggested by the painted processions of dancing tritons and nereids, of female and male figures interspersed with unicorns, which unfold like a garland at the top of the walls.
This circular room was the repository for documents and valuables. Above the Sala della Giustizia, it originally formed a single niche with the Sala Rotonda above it. Some scholars identify it with the actual tomb of Emperor Hadrian. It seems that the treasure was stored in the large chest with six locks, which still stands in the center of the room.
Together with the Loggia di Paolo III, this room of the castle was originally built in 1543. Later it became known as the prison of the famous adventurer and alchemist Giuseppe Balsamo, Count of Cagliostro, who was imprisoned here in 1789 for witchcraft.
The apartment of the castellan
The residence was built by order of the castellan Zenobio Savelli (1730-1752). The position of castellan represented the highest authority that resided in Castel Sant’Angelo—military administrator of operations. In effect, he was at the top of the complex defensive organization of the Papal State. With the construction of the residence, which consists of two floors, the exterior facade of the castle received its current appearance.
On this level are the Sala Rotonda, the Sala delle Colonne (Hall of Columns), and the Terrazzo dell’Angelo (Terrace of the Angel).
This circular room is located above the Sala del Tesoro. It can be reached by a narrow staircase from the Hadrianic period, which begins on the floor of the Library hall. Traditionally known as the site of the first medieval chapel dedicated to the Archangel Michael (hence we can see the original metal support of the statue in the center), it was later used to house the expansion of the secret archives.
Sala delle Colonne
The hall with four columns was built together with the two adjacent smaller halls (the hall of the flags of the cavalry and the hall of the flags of the assault units) under the pontificate of Benedict XIV Lambertini (1740-1758) to contain the new archive. On July 4, 1798, during the French occupation, the documents were transferred to the Vatican, their current location, using the Passetto di Borgo for this purpose.
Terrace of the Angel
The roof terrace is dominated by the bronze statue of the angel cast in 1752 by Peter Anton van Verschaffelt. At the top left is the so-called “convict” and “mercy” bell, whose sound announced executions at the time.
The terrace has been the setting for the “bonfire” or “Girandole” as Michelangelo called it, since the end of the 15th century. These fireworks are known throughout Europe and admired by many artists.
Curiosities about Castel Sant’Angelo
Castel Sant’Angelo has inspired many personalities, filmmakers, and songwriters throughout history. For example, did you know that the castle appears in the blockbuster Angels and Demons? And that the rooftop terrace plays an important role in the third act of Puccini’s famous opera Tosca? Keep reading to discover more curiosities!
The origin of the name
As mentioned in the historical section of this article, the monument was originally a mausoleum. In 403 AD, when it became a fortress for defense purposes, it was given the name Castello.
Another variation of the name arose around 590. At that time, Pope Gregory I organized a solemn, ecclesiastical procession to beg God to end the plague epidemic. It seems that as he crossed the Pons Aelius, he received a vision of the archangel Michael sliding his sword back into its sheath.
The pope interpreted this as the end of the plague, which ended shortly thereafter. Therefore, in honor of the archangel, the pope had a statue erected that looked out over the city, on the spot where Michael appeared.
The statue of the archangel
The statue that can be seen there today is not the original one. The first version was made of wood, but it crumbled due to the weather and was replaced by a marble statue that was destroyed during a siege in 1379.
It was then replaced by a new marble angel, which was struck by lightning in 1497. The fourth, made of bronze covered with gold, was fused to make cannons.
Finally, another bronze statue was chiseled in 1573, which remained on the highest part of the castle for more than two hundred years. Because it was badly damaged, it was removed in 1747 and replaced in 1752 by the present bronze statue by Peter Anton van Verschaffelt, which attracts the attention of thousands of visitors each year.
The macabre prisons
As mentioned before, the castle was used as a political prison in the 19th century. Apart from the courtyard where the prisoners were sentenced, there were numerous rooms used as prisons that can still be visited today.
The worst prison cell in the castle was the Sammalò or San Marocco, at the rear of the Bastione San Marco. The prisoner was lowered from above and had no room to stand or lie down. The cell used to be one of the four vents of Hadrian’s Mausoleum.
On the first floor of the building, cells were reserved for important people, such as the sculptor Cellini. To the right of the Loggia of Paul III are eleven cells for political captives.
Famous prisoners included the humanists Platina and Pomponio Leto, Beatrice Cenci (who was sentenced to death despite her young age), Giordano Bruno, as well as Italian patriots during the Risorgimento.
The famous escape of Benvenuto Cellini
As mentioned in the previous paragraph, the sculptor was one of the castle’s most famous prisoners for almost a year. It seems that he was locked up in the last cell south of the upper Courtyard of Alexander VI.
On the night of Corpus Christi 1538, he decided to tie several sheets together to make a long rope with which he lowered himself right through the latrine (to the right of the cell) and managed to escape.
After he was re-arrested, he was held captive in the cell that was an extension of the large well, which can still be found under the floor of the courtyard. It seems that Cellini complained not only about the darkness, the tarantulas, and the poisonous worms, but also about the fact that there was so much water.
On one wall of the cell is a glass pane shielding a (now not so recognizable) drawing. For his comfort during his imprisonment, the artist had sketched a picture of God with a risen Christ.
The controversial decoration of the papal residence
As mentioned in the section on the Room of Cupid and Psyche, the decorations in the bedroom of Paul III Farnese (1534-1549) were based on the fairy tale of Apuleius in the novel “The Golden Donkey.” Here’s the story in brief.
Once upon a time, there was a young woman named Psyche, who was so beautiful that at one point she was worshipped even more than Venus. The Roman goddess of love became furious and decided to send her son Cupid to match her with the most horrible man he could find. However, the plan didn’t succeed because, in the end, he became her husband. The only drawback was that she was never allowed to see Cupid and therefore he only came to see her at night.
After Psyche became pregnant, she decided one day to hide an oil lamp under the bed to secretly unmask her lover. That night, when Cupid accidentally woke up when Psyche looked at his face, he had to flee. After all, he had disobeyed his mother’s command. After the young woman had passed the severe tests of the gods, Jupiter gave her a potion that made her immortal, just like her husband. Thus they lived happily ever after.
The reason why the decorations of the papal room are connected with this story is that it contains a Christian moral. Psyche is considered the personification of the soul (Psyché in Greek means “soul”) and the trials she underwent represented a difficult but necessary path to finally be rewarded with eternal salvation. The frieze of the room depicts the trials on which Psyche makes every effort to be forgiven by the gods.
The expression “Mastro Titta crosses the bridge”
This is a famous phrase used by the citizens when they saw the executioner of the Papal State (known as Mastro Titta) crossing the bridge in the direction of the Castle, knowing that a man would lose his life soon.
His career as an executioner of death sentences began in the late 18th century when he was only 17 years old. In 68 years of service, Mastro Titta tortured and executed 516 people. The bloody and macabre executions were carried out in various ways (e.g. using a gallows or guillotine) in the courtyard which was perfectly legal at the time.
The executioner lived in Borgo (near the castle) and earned his living as an umbrella-maker. Since he was known for his gruesome side job in Castel Sant’Angelo, he was asked to cross the bridge to the castle only when necessary.
Ponte Sant’Angelo and its ten angels
The St. Angelo Bridge connects the Piazza di Ponte Sant’Angelo with Castel Sant’Angelo. The bridge was built in 134 by Emperor Hadrian but wasn’t named Ponte Sant’Angelo until around the 16th century.
At the beginning of the bridge, on the bank opposite the castle, are the statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul. The former holds the keys to heaven and the latter a sword. The ten angels on the rest of the bridge, show the objects of Christ’s suffering: the crown of thorns, the cross, whips, nails, etc.
On the bridge where Bernini’s statues now stand, the severed heads and corpses of those condemned to death used to be displayed for deterrence.
The influence on pop culture
As mentioned earlier, the multi-faceted building hasn’t only meant a lot in the past but also had a great influence on contemporary pop culture.
The famous roof terrace, for example, is the point from where the namesake leaps to her death in the third act of Puccini’s famous opera Tosca. Like mentioned before, the Castle also makes an appearance in the movie Angels and Demons.
Besides, the location has been used as inspiration in video games such as Assassin’s Creed II, with a starring role in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.
Useful tips for your visit
- Because of the large number of tourists who come here every week, we recommend going as early as possible and on weekdays.
- To avoid long queues, it’s best to book your tickets online in advance.
- You can also purchase a Roma Pass to visit the castle for free. Don’t forget to show it at the entrance.
- Check the official website of Castel Sant’Angelo for current opening hours and COVID-19 restrictions.
- Please, note that you’re visiting a museum and that eating or drinking isn’t allowed here. Beides, it’s permitted to take pictures but only without flash.
- In terms of duration, a visit to the castle can take up to three hours. Keep this in mind for your day planning.
- Due to the structure of the building, there are some access barriers. For example, wheelchairs can only reach the fifth floor via a special elevator.
- Castel Sant’Angelo is easy to reach by car and in Lungotevere, you can find a parking spot in both directions.
Nearby places of interest
As mentioned earlier, a visit to Castel Sant’Angelo can easily take 2-3 hours. If you want to visit another nearby attraction afterward, here are a few options.
This is one of the most famous monumental squares in Rome. Emperor Domitian had a large stadium built on this spot for athletic competitions, which had room for 30,000 people.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Romans built houses on the former tribunes. The athletics track itself remained unbuilt and evolved into a large square over the centuries. In the 17th century, Pope Innocent X gave it its current shape.
Piazza Navona is 750 m southeast of Castel Sant’Angelo (a 9-minute walk).
This is a temple dedicated to all the gods of the past, present, and future. It was founded in 27 BC by Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa. It has retained its religious function to this day, despite Catholic modifications.
The iconic work is one of the few Roman buildings still intact, encompassing centuries of history, art, culture, and sophisticated building technology.
The entrance to the Pantheon is 1.2 km southeast of Castel Sant’Angelo (a 15-minute walk).
The Musei Vaticani count a total of 26 different museums, all connected and located in the Apostolic Palaces in Vatican City. Thanks to its huge collection of art treasures from Roman and Egyptian antiquity, religious objects, beautifully painted rooms, and even modern art, the museum is one of the largest in the world.
During your visit, you can admire, among other things, the famous Sistine Chapel and the many art treasures that the popes have collected here (spread over 54 rooms) since the 16th century.
The entrance to the museums is 1.4 km northeast of Castel Sant’Angelo (an 18-minute walk).
St. Peter’s Basilica
The Basilica di San Pietro is an impressive building with a legendary history. The “Center of Christianity” and what lies hidden inside the imposing church is visited annually by as many as 20,000 tourists and pilgrims from around the world.
It’s not only a place of worship for the faithful but also a shrine full of art treasures and a paragon for Vatican Baroque architecture.
St. Peter’s Basilica is 700 m east of Castel Sant’Angelo (10-minute walk).