Castel Sant’Angelo Facts & History
Located in Lungotevere Castello, 50 within the Vatican City Area, Castel Sant’Angelo was also known as the Mauseoleum of Hadrian. The construction dates back to the ancient Rome and precisely to 123 AD, when Hadrian had this impressive tomb built for himself and his family. Today Castel Sant’Angelo is a State Museum in Rome that features six layers that includes the burial chamber, the papal apartments and the beautiful terrace. But before becoming a museum Castel Sant’Angelo was also a fortress used by popes in case of danger.
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The Mausoleum of Hadrian
The ancient mausoleum featured a squared base with white marble decorations. A frieze showed inscriptions of the names of the emperor buried inside. On top of the structure there was a mound of earth planted with trees, surrounded by marble statues and topped by a bronze quadriga, a chariot drawn by four horses and led by Hadrian. Tall walls surrounded the mausoleum and featured a large bronze gate decorated with peacocks. Two of them can still be seen in Pine Courtyard in the Vatican Museum.
The Mausoleum housed the ashes of Hadrian and his wife, Vibia Sabina, and their successors up to Caracalla. By 403 A.D the building had already lost its original purpose and was turned into a fortress. The current name of Castel Sant’Angelo originated only later, in 590, when Pope Gregory I organized a solemn procession with the population of Rome to stop a terrible plague that had infested the city. According to legend, when the procession approached Hadrian’s Mausoleum, the Pope had a vision of the Archangel Michael with his sword. Following the miraculous event, the plague actually ended. Ever since the people of Rome started calling the mausoleum with the name “Castel Sant’Angelo” (literally translated “Saint Angel Castle”)!
To commemorate the apparition of the Angel, in the 13th century a statue of the angel was put on top of the monument.
|Credits: image by @waldomiguez
Castel Sant’Angelo was slowly turned into a fortress and in 1277 it was acquired by the papacy. Indeed, it was Pope Nicholas III (1216-1280) who belonged to the Orsini family to decide to partially move the Apostolic See to Castel Sant’Angelo due to the proximity with the Vatican Palace and St. Peter’s Basilica.
In order to grant a higher level of security of the Vatican Palace, the Pope also built the famous Passetto di Borgo, a secret corridor above the street level that connects Castel Sant’Angelo with the Vatican. From this time on, the history of Castel Sant’Angelo will be strictly connected to the destiny of the popes.
Thanks to its imposing, fortified structure, popes used the castle as a refuge in times of danger, to house the Vatican Archive and Treasure, but also as a courthouse and a prison!
A Sumptuous Palace
During the following four centuries Castel Sant’Angelo underwent several transformations.
Pope Alexander VI, who loved to stay in the castle, turned it into a sumptuous palace with gardens and fountains. A new stunning apartment was built and decorated by Pinturicchio. Chronicles of the time tell us about banquets and parties that took place in the castle.
Located at the fourth level of Castel Sant’Angelo, the papal apartments can be visited and accessed to from the Angel Courtyard. At the fifth level you can admire the most luxurious and best preserved rooms designed under Pope Paul III in 1542. Renovation works were carried out by some of the most important and brilliant artists from the Renaissance.
At the six level stands the Library and the Treasure room. The view you can get from the top of the fortress is certainly of the the highlight of the visit to Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Prisons of Castel Sant’Angelo
Several floors under the apartments there are the ancient prisons where enemies were kept and tortured.
Trials took place in the Hall of Justice, while executions occurred outside the Castle. Many historical figures were kept inside these prisons, such as the philosopher Giordano Bruno. The Statue of Giordano Bruno still stands in Piazza Campo De Fiori to commemorate the event.
One of the saddest chapter of the history of Castel Sant’Angelo concerns the figure of Beatrice Cenci, a noblewoman sentenced to death for having killed her abusive father. The balcony of Beatrice Cenci Palace is one of the main highlights of Rome Jewish Ghetto. Her remains were buried in the Church of San Pietro in Montorio on the Gianicolo Hill. However, in 1789 her shrine was desecrated by French soldiers who destroyed the marble slabs of the church. This episode was recalled by the painter Vincenzo Camuccini who witnessed the event.