Castel Sant’Angelo: From Hadrian’s Mausoleum to a Papal Haven & Beyond

A burial chamber, an asylum, a papal fortress, a prison and now a national museum -- welcome to Castel Sant’Angelo.

Often called the guardian of the Eternal City, the Castel Sant’Angelo has dominated vistas on the west side of the Tiber River as it bends toward the Vatican for almost two millennia. An imperial burial chamber, an asylum for hundreds, a courtly fortress for Popes, a prison for torment, and lastly a stately, national museum, Castel Sant’Angelo has a storied past from which legends are truly made.

Constructed between approximately 123 and 139 CE in an enormous circular plan by Emperor Hadrian (ruled 117-38 CE), this massive structure rises majestically to 165 feet high (offering brilliant panoramic views of the city.) At its creation, the location was considered outside the “city walls” as laws prohibited burial of the dead within the city boundaries. Hadrian died before its completion, but his successor, Antoninus Pius (ruled 138-61 CE), had his ashes, along with his wife’s, placed in the structure when completed. Used as a mausoleum for several emperors thereafter, the building received its first major alteration in 271 CE when Emperor Aurelian (ruled 270-275 CE) incorporated it into his system of walls and towers around the city as a most imposing defensive barrier against invaders.

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The name Castel Sant’Angelo translates into Castle of the Holy Angel and dates to the 6th century at the end of that era’s devastating plague. Legend states that the Archangel Michael appeared above the castle in 590 CE as a mark to the end of the plague, designated the Plague of Justinian, which spread over the Roman Empire from 541 to 590 CE taking millions of lies, even the then Pope, Pelagius II (Papacy 579-90 CE). It was the beginning of Pope Gregory the Great’s papacy (590-604 AD and later Saint Gregory the Great) that saw the end of the of the plague which legend states was a result of his penitential procession through the streets of Rome that culminated with the heavenly appearance of the archangel above the Castel.

For much of the following centuries as Rome itself was in political, religious, and social disarray so to was the Castel Sant’Angelo with various prominent families vying for its use as their personal fortress. One of these families is the Orsini; therefore when one of their own is elected Pope the Castel Sant’Angelo becomes formally attached to the Papacy. It is at this time in the 13th century due to the continual threat of violent, foreign intruders; the Vatican Corridor was built by Pope Nicholas III Orsini (Papacy 1277-80) to securely and secretly lead the Pope from the Vatican into the Castel Sant’Angelo. The building also became more of bastion with gigantic storage for munitions, food, and water accommodating hundreds of people and additional towers and fortified walls making it an almost impenetrable fortress. As such several centuries later it withstood the Sack of Rome by Charles V in 1527. Soon after it was again modified extensively, this time concentrating on the interior creating lavishly frescoed apartments in1542-49 by Pope Paul III Farnese (Papacy 1534-49).

A statue of Archangel Michael was documented atop the Castel Sant’Angelo beginning in the 11th century. Today the pinnacle is adorned with a monumental bronze statue of the Archangel in all his glory with his wings flared and sheathing his sword. It is a towering 13-feet high so to be seen from a great distance. This particular statue was created in the 18th century by Flemish sculptor, Pieter Van Verschaffelt. It is the sixth version as all others were either fashioned from wood and deteriorated over time or from marble and gilt bronze and destroyed or melted in battle.

In 1870 the Castel Sant’Angelo returned to a building of warfare as it was used as a barracks and military prison. The city of Rome was at the heart of the struggle for a unified Italy with battles between the Papacy, unification troops, Vittorio Emanuele of Savoy, and Napoleon. This cycle of military use ended in 1901, when conservation and restoration of the frescoes and marble embellishments began, and by the early 1930s it re-opened as a national museum.

The current Treasury Room (designated so by medieval Popes to hide the documents and valuables of the Papacy) in the middle of the structure is assumed to be the original site of Hadrian’s burial chamber. It is one of 58 rooms that make up the modern use of this illustrious structure as a museum devoted to both its distinguished and notorious history, from the dank prison cells of the Middle Ages to the elegant apartments of the Renaissance Papacy. The structure’s near continuous use most certainly accounts for its superb condition given its age. While hundreds of additional words can be written detailing the rich life of the Castel Sant’Angelo, it is a lengthy visit through its seven levels that will constitute a walk through the ages that touches each of your senses and allows you to fully embrace the art and architecture of it – a truly unique experience of a complete immersion into the exalted past of the Eternal City as represented in a single structure.

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