The Castel Sant’Angelo (which in Italian means “Castle of the Holy Angel”) was once a mausoleum, a fortress, a military prison, and even a papal residence. And nowadays, it’s a national museum, an archaeological site, and one of the most important monuments in the historic center of Rome, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980.
After being acquired by the Italian State in 1870, the Castel Sant’Angelo opened to the public in 1901, with an exhibition of ceramics, coins, and weapons found in archaeological excavations. Shortly thereafter, this new museum began to receive collections of sculpture, painting, and decorative arts. And since then, the Castel Sant’Angelo has attracted thousands of tourists from all over the world!
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- Brief History of the Castel Sant’Angelo
- How to Get to the Castel Sant’Angelo
- What to See at the Castel Sant’Angelo
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Brief History of the Castel Sant’Angelo
As I mentioned in the introduction, the Castel Sant’Angelo has had different functions throughout history. The first structure was erected by Emperor Hadrian in 135 AD, to serve as a personal and family mausoleum. However, in 403 AD, the building had already been converted into a military fortress and integrated into the Aurelian Wall by Emperor Honorius.
Its current designation of “Castle of the Holy Angel” dates back to the year 590 AD, more specifically to the period when a great outbreak of plague hit the city of Rome. And, legend has it, that the then Pope Gregory I saw the Archangel Michael wielding his sword on top of the fortress as if announcing the end of the epidemic!
From that “divine” moment on, the popes decided to make the building their own castle. For this, it’s inevitable to mention the iconic Passetto di Borgo, a corridor designed by Pope Nicholas II in 1277 and which connects the Castel Sant’Angelo to the Apostolic Palace in Vatican City!
In the first half of the 16th century, Raffaello da Montelupo created a marble statue of Saint Michael, which went on to adorn the top of the Castel Sant’Angelo in honor of the vision of Pope Gregory I. This sculpture was replaced in 1753 by a bronze one by Pierre van Verschaffelt, but the original work can still be admired in the Cortile dell’Angelo.
At the same time, the then Pope Paul III (who reigned after the Sack of Rome in 1527) ordered the construction of a sumptuous papal apartment, which could serve as a refuge for his successors in case of a new attack. The Holy See also began using the fortified structure as a prison, arresting and executing enemies of the church. Already in the 19th century, during the revolutionary movements of the Risorgimento, many patriots were detained here!
Did you know that the Castel Sant’Angelo was part of Italy’s second set of inscriptions on the UNESCO World Heritage List? This 4th session of the World Heritage Committee took place in Paris (France), between September 1st and 5th, 1980.
Only one other Italian site was announced in the session: the Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci.
Nowadays, Italy is the country in the world with the most UNESCO sites: it has fifty-eight heritage assets (both cultural and natural) inscribed on the world list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization!
In the meantime, I’ve already had the opportunity to visit five of them:
- Cinque Terre (1997)
- Historic Centre of Florence (1982)
- Historic Centre of Rome and the Properties of the Holy See (1980) – Castel Sant’Angelo, Colosseum, Pantheon, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill
- The Porticoes of Bologna (2021)
- Venice and its Lagoon (1987)
How to Get to the Castel Sant’Angelo
The Castel Sant’Angelo is located on the Lungotevere Castello, a stretch of the famous waterfront along the Tiber (Tivere in Italian), the river that runs through the city of Rome. From here, you’re very close to several other tourist attractions in the Italian capital, such as the Piazza Navona (750 meters), the Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Altemps (800 meters), or the Mausoleo di Augusto (1000 meters).
And did you know that Vatican City State is just 700 meters from the Castel Sant’Angelo? Take the opportunity to visit the best attractions in the smallest country in the world, such as the Piazza di San Pietro, the Basilica di San Pietro, or the Musei Vaticani (including the Cappella Sistina)!
In my opinion, Rome is a true “open-air museum” and therefore deserves to be explored on foot. However, if you prefer to travel by public transportation, you can reach Castel Sant’Angelo by bus (numbers 23, 280, 62, and 982; Piazza Pia stop), tram (number 19; Risorgimento/San Pietro stop), or subway (line A, Lepanto and Ottaviano stations).
Opening Hours & Ticket Prices
The Castel Sant’Angelo is open every day of the year (except on January 1st, May 1st, and December 25th), from 9 am to 7:30 pm. As far as tickets are concerned, they cost €13 (adults) or €3 (young people aged between 18 and 25, who are citizens of the European Union), and can be purchased on the official website of TOSC – Ticket One Sistemi Culturali.
What to See at the Castel Sant’Angelo
The Ponte Sant’Angelo (initially Pons Aelius) was commissioned by Emperor Hadrian in 134 AD, as an integral part of his personal mausoleum (also known as Mole Adrianorum or Mausoleo di Adriano, the alternative designations of the Castel Sant’Angelo).
Interestingly, this pedestrian bridge over the Tiber River was once called Ponte di San Pietro (or Pons Sancti Petri, in Latin), as it was used by pilgrims heading to Saint Peter’s Basilica. However, its name was changed by Pope Gregory I, after his famous vision of the Archangel Michael.
In the first half of the 16th century, Raffaello da Montelupo created a group of sculptures of angels for the bridge deck, at the request of Pope Paul III. To these first fourteen decorative statues were added those of the apostles Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the patriarchs Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Moses, and those of the four evangelists.
Despite this, the sculptures you see today on the Ponte Sant’Angelo aren’t the ones by Raffaello da Montelupo! These ten angels holding the Arma Christi were designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his contemporaries for Pope Clement IX, in the second half of the 17th century.
Bastione San Marco
The Castel Sant’Angelo is composed of a central circular structure, delimited by a rectangular walled enclosure with four bulwarks at the ends. The Bastione San Marco is in the northwest corner of the building, and the others were named after the remaining New Testament evangelists: Bastione San Luca (in the northeast corner), Bastione San Giovanni (in the southeast corner), and Bastione San Matteo (in the southwest corner).
Saint Mark’s Bastion is particularly interesting, as this is where the Passetto di Borgo begins. Constructed in the mid-15th century during the pontificate of Nicholas V, this bulwark has already been covered. And its lower floors have had multiple functions: prison, barracks, dormitory, weapons storage…
Cortile d’Onore (or Cortile dell’Angelo)
The Cortile d’Onore (or Courtyard of Honor) was designed between the pontificates of Leo X and Paul III – that is, during the first half of the 16th century. Popularly known as Cortile dell’Angelo (or Courtyard of the Angel), it’s a rectangular courtyard from which the papal apartments, located on the upper floor of the monument, are accessed.
On one side of the Cortile d’Onore, you’ll be able to admire the Aedicule of the Chapel of Pope Leo X, designed by Michelangelo Buonarroti. And on the other side, you’ll find a double arch with a central niche, which Raffaello da Montelupo made at the request of Pope Paul III.
Speaking of Raffaello da Montelupo, it’s precisely this terrace that houses his masterpiece, the statue of Archangel Michael. Created in 1544, this was the sculpture that remained for more than two centuries on top of the Castel Sant’Angelo, until it was replaced by the current one!
The Arsenal of Castel Sant’Angelo is a two-story structure with a series of connecting rooms, which has been converted into a military museum. Here, dozens of weapons are on display (such as arquebuses, pistols, crossbows, swords, daggers, spears, etc.), as well as armor, helmets, military attire, shields, and other combat material.
As far as is known, the Armeria building was constructed in the second half of the 15th century, although constant interventions and renovations have made accurate dating and functionality difficult. Located a few meters from the Courtyard of Honor (or Courtyard of the Angel), it was a space used by the garrisons that guarded the castle.
Loggia di Giulio II
This beautiful columned gallery, with panoramic views of the River Tiber and the historic center of Rome, is called the Loggia di Giulio II (named after Pope Julius II).
Architectural details such as the parapet made of white marble, the tympanum and lunettes decorated with frescoes, the plant motifs carved on the capitals of the columns, and the coat of arms of the Rovere (the Pope’s family) on the ceiling stand out.
When Julius II began his pontificate in 1503, the new apartments in the Palazzo Apostolico (in Vatican City) were still under construction. For that reason, the pope resided in Castel Sant’Angelo almost permanently!
The Pauline Hall owes its name to Pope Paul III, one of the great promoters of Castel Sant’Angelo. Like other rooms in this papal apartment, it’s a sumptuous hall richly decorated by the painter Perin del Vaga, which had the collaboration of Livio Agresti, Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta, Marco dal Pino, Pellegrino Tibaldi, and Jacopo Bertucci.
It’s difficult to focus your attention on a single detail of Pauline Hall, as there are so many elements to admire. On the ceiling, there are six frescoed panels depicting episodes from the life of Alexander the Great, as well as the papal coat of arms crowning the room. And immediately below, a Latin inscription surrounds the entire room, commemorating the restoration works of Castel Sant’Angelo.
As for the walls, there are painted allegorical figures of the Four Cardinal Virtues (Fortress, Justice, Prudence, and Temperance) and more scenes of Alexander the Great. Above the doors, there are also six stories of the Apostle Saint Paul. To these are added the effigies of Emperor Hadrian and Archangel Michael, two symbolic personalities of this Roman monument.
Sala del Perseo
The Hall of Perseus is named after the demigod and hero of Greek mythology. Directly connected to the bedroom, this space served as Pope Paul III’s personal office and studio.
Like the Pauline Room, the Hall of Perseus was also embellished by Perin del Vaga and his team of artists. In this case, the painters focused only on the upper part of the walls and ceiling.
The latter is made up of wooden coffers, from which a relief image of the Archangel Michael stands out. And around him, the heraldic symbols of the Pope multiply.
Lastly, the frieze is entirely dedicated to Perseus, as evidenced by the six frescoes panels. His heroic deeds follow a chronological order, starting on the left side of the entrance to the room.
Sala di Amore e Psiche
The Hall of Cupid and Psyche was the bedroom of Pope Paul III and has many similarities with the previous room. In the first place, only the ceiling and the top of the walls received ornamentation. And secondly, this work was done by Perin del Vaga and his assistants.
The coffered ceiling features the Pope’s coat of arms and his name, as well as reliefs with naturalistic motifs. And the frescoed frieze is divided into nine panels, this time narrating episodes from the fable of Cupid and Psyche. The story of the two lovers, originally with sensual connotations, was here transformed into an allegory in which Psyche is the personification of the soul and Cupid represents the sacrifices necessary in life, to deserve eternal salvation.
The Adrianeo Hall is located on the sixth floor of the Castel Sant’Angelo and corresponds, together with the neighboring Sala dei Festoni (or Hall of the Festoons), to one of the first spaces completed during the revolutionary campaign of works promoted by Pope Paul III.
Conceived by Luzio Luzi, the frieze of the Adrianeo Hall addresses mythological themes while paying homage to iconic structures of Ancient Rome, which could be seen from the Vatican: Domitian’s Naumachia; the Circus of Nero (or Circus of Caligula); the Goal of Romulus; and the Mole Adrianorum (or Castel Sant’Angelo)!
Sala dei Festoni
The Hall of Festoons was named so by Mariano Borgatti, the first director of the Castel Sant’Angelo National Museum. Unfortunately, the original ceilings by Luzio Luzi have been lost, but it’s known that they would have had the same style as those of the Adrianeo Hall, the Hall of Cupid and Psyche, and the Hall of Perseus.
On the other hand, the frescoes on the frieze are still preserved, where dozens of mythological characters, from tritons and nereids, to unicorns “parade”. This kind of “garland” made of plant motifs and fantastic elements is, therefore, the obvious explanation for the curious designation of this room.
Sala del Tesoro
The Treasure Room, as it can be deduced, is one of the most important rooms in Castel Sant’Angelo – if not the most important! Here, the most valuable objects of the Papal States were kept in large iron chests, from secret documents to priceless sacred pieces, not to mention the gold reserve!
Originally, the Treasure Room had a circular shape. However, Pope Paul III granted it this polygonal appearance in 1545, when he had the built-in walnut cabinets created. These were intended to preserve the collection of the Papal Archives and can still be seen today all around the room.
Sala delle Colonne
The Columns Hall and the two adjoining rooms – the Sala degli Stendardi della Cavalleria and the Sala dei Labari dei Reparti d’Assalto (or Hall of the Banners of the Cavalry and Hall of the Labara of the Assault Departments, in English) – are later constructions to the previously described, dating from the pontificate of Benedict XIV (ie, 1740-1758).
In this space, there was the so-called “New Archive” – even though the original furniture was destroyed during the French occupation, at the end of the 19th century. Fortunately, the books and documents were successfully transferred to the Vatican, using the Passetto di Borgo!
The Terrace of the Angel is the highest accessible point of the Castel Sant’Angelo and a true panoramic viewpoint, with breathtaking views both over the historic center of Rome (on the other bank of the Tiber River) and Vatican City (and the Passetto di Borg).
If the sky is clear, you can see from this patio the People’s Square (or Piazza del Popolo), the Church of the Santissima Trinidad dei Monti, the Barberini Palace, the Quirinal Palace, the Pantheon, the Colosseum, the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, and the Palazzo Senatorio (on the Capitoline Hill), among many other historic buildings in the Italian capital!
The bronze statue of Archangel Michael, by Pierre van Verschaffelt, has been crowned the Castel Sant’Angelo since 1753. Before that, the protagonist was the colossal marble statue by Raffaello da Montelupo, now installed in the Cortile dell’Angelo.
Finally, it should be noted that the Terrace of the Angel was the scene of many fireworks shows, which achieved great popularity in Europe in the Renaissance period. Typically, the fireworks were launched on festive occasions such as papal elections or religious celebrations.
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