Castel Sant'Angelo - The tomb of Hadrian and the fortress of the Popes

Castel S. Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel) is the true silent witness of the History of Rome: first a Roman tomb, then a papal residence, fortress, prison, and execution ground, and currently a museum offering one of the most amazing views over the city, its roofs and domes.

Originally built as Hadrian’s mausoleum, this monumental tomb, designed by the emperor himself, overlooked the Vatican field, with his cylindrical drum, covered with gardens and surmounted by the bronze statue of Hadrian on a chariot. The internal spiral ramp led to the funeral cell containing big cinerary urns.

The tomb, which housed the burials of roman emperors up to Caracalla, was soon converted into a fortress: the citizens of Rome sieged by barbarians in the 6th century, took shelter inside and started throwing smashed statues and decorations at the enemies as projectiles.

The castle was dedicated to the archangel Michael, who appeared on top to pope Gregory the Great during a plague, and freed the city from this terrible disease.

In the Middle Ages the mausoleum became a papal fortress: when Gregory XI came back from Avignon he wanted the keys of the castle and stationed inside 75 French soldiers equipped with the new fire arms. In the Renaissance the popes Leo X, Clement VII, Paul III built their apartments decorated with frescos by Raphael’s pupils: grotesque (ornamental motif, fantastic animals, plants and flowers inspired by the roman paintings), mythological scenes.

But beyond the amazing decorations, golden stuccos, sparkling marble floors, the castle hides a dark heart: the dreadful prisons, built under the courtyard, along the sentry path, by the bastions, or simply located in the many rooms of papal apartments, accommodated thorny and prominent people. The most terrible one was inserted in a vent over the elicoidal ramp of Hadrian’s Mausoleum, a small room accessible just from a trapdoor, and another one in the floor was used to get rid of corpses.

In the 15th century there was imprisoned an archbishop charged with falsification of 3000 papal documents. Every day the jailer brought him bread, water and some oil for his lamp: he died after 8 months. Another famous prisoner was Benvenuto Cellini, renowned goldsmith, accused of stealing some jewels from the pope. He managed to escape from his cell tying sheets hidden in his bed, and climbing down from a latrine’s window. But jumping down, from the last fortification wall, he broke a leg, despite the injury he managed to reach the house of a cardinal who interceded for him. Cellini was arrested again and imprisoned in the Castle, this time in a narrow, dark, humid cell, infested with spiders and poisonous worms, so that he meditates suicide. Eventually he received mercy from the pope Paul III, who had experienced the castle’s prisons too when he was about 18 years old, and managed to escape hiding in a fruit basket, carried by two servants (he had the scene painted in the royal hall when he was pope by then).

The ghost of Beatrice Cenci, a young beautiful girl, accused of her violent father’s murder, is still wandering around bearing her decapitated head. Patriots and rebels who fought to expel the king pope from Rome and unify Italy, where jailed in some rooms on top of the castle, and shot in the courtyard of executions, announced by a ringing bell, still visible on top: the same destiny suffered Mario Cavaradossi, the lover of Tosca, protagonist of the famous opera by Puccini, whose dramatic ending is set in this wonderful location.

The castle protected the papal treasure too: in a big coffer, with six locks, in a room secured by 2 doors, were preserved golden coins, papal crowns and jewels.

Well, Castel S. Angelo hides a never ending story, intrigues, murders, betrayals, ghosts, and to know more about it you just have to visit it.


Valentina A. (Walks Inside Rome Guide)