The year is 590 AD. An assembly of the faithful have gathered outside the church of San Saba on the Aventine hill. Rome is being ravaged by plague, but today they will march to the Vatican to beg for salvation from the deadly disease that is decimating the population.
At the head of the procession is the Pope himself, Gregory I, leading the forlorn rabble through the deserted streets. The dead are being thrown into the streets and the river. Leaving the house risks infection.
The men, women and children plod forward with heads bowed. Pope Gregory draws them ever onwards. Approaching the Ponte Aelius, the Pope raises his hand and halts the procession. A miracle!
Above the mausoleum of Hadrian appears a vision. The Archangel Michael wipes the blood from his sword and returns it to its sheath. A SIGN. The plague is over.
From that moment, the vast monument was renamed – the castle of the angel – Castel St Angelo.
Wait a minute, maybe I started in the wrong century!
The year is 138 AD. The Emperor Hadrian is dying. OK, maybe his social skills were not great, but he had been one of the most effective Roman Emperors of all time. He was the only Emperor ever to visit every single province and improve the conditions for every Roman citizen. (Unless you are Jewish, in which case, may his bones be crushed!)
A keen architect, Hadrian left an indelible mark on this city. The Pantheon, the Temple to Venus and Rome, and his own mausoleum. Construction began in 123AD to house his ashes and those of his successors. However, its completion would be left to his named heir, the next Emperor, Antoninus Pious.
Going all the way back to the Etruscan civilization, mausoleums were traditionally cylindrical constructions, but this would be the largest and the best fortified building in Rome.
Utilising Roman concrete, this immense monument was the tallest in Rome for centuries. Access could only be gained by one entrance followed by a helicoidal ramp winding its way upwards, dissected by a drawbridge. This made it virtually impregnable.
Built on the right bank of the river Tiber, just a stone’s throw from mons vaticanus, this mausoleum would turn out to have one of the most interesting and varied histories of any monument in Rome.
The third century was a disaster for the Roman Empire. There were enemies on all fronts, a plague depleted both the population and the military forces. The Empire split into four and it could well have been the end.
Enter the new Emperor Aurelian. In five short years from 270-275AD he managed to reunite the Empire and constructed the Aurelian walls surrounding the entire city to ensure Rome’s future safety. To speed up the work, Aurelian decided to incorporate existing structures, including Hadrian’s mausoleum. These immense walls can still be marveled at today.
The Emperors were not the only people to recognize the strength and strategic importance of Castel St Angelo. Since the fourth century AD, the Vatican had been growing up around St Peter’s Basilica and the middle ages were precarious times.
In 1277, Pope Nicholas III decided to build an elevated corridor to link the Vatican to the castle. 800m long, Il Passetto would be used as an escape route for the Popes to reach the safety of Castel St Angelo. Now the property of the Vatican, further embellishments and fortifications would take place.
In the fourteen hundreds, the notorious Pope Alexander VI Borgia added four great bastions, one at each corner that he aptly named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John! It was lucky that he did as he had to use the Passetto to escape from Charles VIII when his life was in peril.
What about the money?
What better place to house the Vatican treasury than the safest building in Rome? Even today, we can still see the great coffers that kept the money safe.
What about the heretics?
Castel St Angelo was also the Vatican prison. Anyone disagreeing with the church’s teaching? Well that was heresy and punishable by death. Many prisoners were held in the castle before their fate, including Bruno Giordano who was famously burnt alive in Campo di Fiori.
A little luxury please
The year is 1527, Rome is being sacked by the German mercenary army of Charles V of France. Pope Clement VII Medici scurries over the Passetto whilst his Swiss Guard are being massacred.
Pope Paul III Farnese is elected in 1534 and has no intention of being holed up in a dank fortress if more trouble arrives. He commissions the best artists of the day to decorate apartments befitting a Pope. The reception room – the Sala Paolina, the library, the bed chamber. Each beautifully frescoed with the ancient Roman myths – perhaps linking himself to the glory of the classical world.
Today, Castel St Angelo is a museum, allowing you to walk through centuries of architecture, history and art. The 360 degree views of the city are unbeatable and there is a great bar!
Just do not throw yourself from the ramparts. Only Tosca did that in Puccini’s sublime opera.
And the story continues ….