A visit to Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, Italy

Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome

Castel Sant’Angelo or Mausoleum of Hadrian is one of the most popular tourist spots in Rome and is famous for its rich history.

Over the centuries the castle has been used for many different purposes and has served alternately as a tomb, a fortress, a military bastion, a prison and a museum.

Around the castle there are always a lot of tourists, as well as in the castle, and to get inside, especially in tourist season, you have to stand in line. But it is worth it! The unique history of the famous castle, which is more than two thousand years, a lot of myths and legends, ancient architecture, beautiful halls and galleries …

History of Castel Sant’Angelo

Originally on the site of the castle was erected a tomb commissioned by the Roman Emperor Publius Hadrianus around 135 AD. It was here that the ashes of Emperor Hadrian with the urns of his wife Sabina and son were placed in 138 AD.

The cylindrical tomb was sumptuously decorated. On the flat roof of the structure was arranged decorative garden, in the central part of which the gilded quadriga was flaunting. To connect the center of Rome with the mausoleum, the Bridge of Sant’Angelo (Ponte Sant’Angelo) was built across the river.

The mausoleum was completed in 139 already under the reign of Antoninus Pius, and the last burial in the castle took place in 217, when Emperor Caracalla died.

Military fortress

By the 5th century, at the time of the barbarian attack on ancient Rome, the castle served as a military fortress for the popes. After the barbarians took over the fortress, the emperors’ tomb was looted and fell into disrepair. Much of the bronze decorations, sculptures and urns were stolen.

Residence of the Popes.

By the 14th century, when the fortress was taken over by the Vatican, it had been completely restored and acquired the status of the Castel Sant’Angelo. Where the tombs of the emperors used to be, richly decorated apartments for the heads of the Vatican were placed. Thus the castle became the residence of the popes.

During the reign of Nicolaus III, the castle was connected to the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano by the Passetto di Borgo.

When in 1527 the armies of Charles V invaded Rome, the castle became the refuge of Pope Clement VII. Later, comfortable quarters for popes were arranged on the grounds of the tomb in case of a new attack.

Prison

On the lower floors of the castle there were prison cells, organized there by the Catholic Church. The most famous prisoners of this prison were Giordano Bruno, imprisoned for 6 years, and Benvenuto Cellini.

Thus, over the centuries, the former imperial tomb has become the impregnable castle of the Vatican’s top officials and the strictest prison for the undesirable in Rome, thus proclaiming the unrivaled papal power.

By the way, the prison in the Castel Sant’Angelo was indeed the most impregnable, from which it was impossible to escape. The only person known to have escaped from the prison of Sant’Angelo did so – the sculptor and jeweler Benvenuto Cellini.

Modern times

Since 1901 the castle is a Museum of Military History (Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo) and an amazing architectural monument, a must-see for all tourists in Rome.

Architecture

The castle has an imposing appearance and has an unusual shape – it is impossible not to notice it if you walk along the waterfront, for example, from the side of the Vatican.

And the St. Angel’s Bridge, which connects the castle to the opposite bank, is also famous for its unique historical past and is no less an important landmark than the fortress itself.

Castle of the Holy Angel

Photo: Blue Planet Studio / Shutterstock.com

Facade

St. Angel’s Castle is structurally a huge cylindrical fortress with a square base underneath, lined with marble. The towering round towers of the castle were named after the four apostles, St. John, St. Luke, St. Matthew and St. Mark.

Castle of the Holy Angel

Photo: Aerial-motion / Shutterstock.com

The upper part of the castle is made of volcanic stone. The exterior of the structure is lined with travertine and has decorative framing in the form of pilasters depicting cattle heads.

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Later, when the building was used as a military bastion, it was fortified with additional walls.

Of course, the appearance of the modern fortress is very different from the originally built mausoleum. Little remains of the rich decoration of the mausoleum, white marble and facing stone, and the castle itself no longer looks as impregnable as it did at the time of the battles. Although the external shape of the castle has remained the same.

Inside

In the interior of the structure, the ancient tombs of the emperor and his family, as well as those of other emperors – Antony Pius, Mark Antony – have not survived to this day. The tombs and urns were looted and destroyed during the barbarian attack.

And in the Middle Ages, when the fortress was taken over by the Vatican, it was connected to the latter by a special corridor and was used as a refuge for the popes. On the other hand, they also contributed greatly to the restoration of the castle and its preservation up to the present day.

During the reign of Pope Bonifacio IX, the Cappella San Michele Arcangelo was built in the castle, and the walls and bastions were reinforced. The architect Niccolò Lamberti was in charge of this work.

Castle of the Holy Angel

Photo: Elena Odareeva / Shutterstock.com

Castle of the Holy Angel

Photo: NickArm / Shutterstock.com

Castle of the Holy Angel

Photo: Harnisch Kitti / Shutterstock.com

The castle was further strengthened by the architect Antonio Giamberti da Sangallo (Antonio Giamberti da Sangallo) on the orders of Pope Alexander VI (Alessandro VI) in the 15th century. As a result, four more bastions were erected and a moat was dug. Inside the castle there is an apartment for the Pope, decorated with frescoes by Pinturicchio.

To further strengthen the castle, in the 17th century Urbano VIII destroyed a large part of the military bastions in order to build an even more powerful structure.

Statue of the Archangel Michael

At the top of the fortress from the 16th to 18th centuries was a marble statue of the Archangel Michael with a sword, made by Raffaello da Montelupo based on a legend.

Castle of the Holy Angel

Photo: kavalenkava / Shutterstock.com

Subsequently, the sculpture was moved to the Angel’s Courtyard, which was built in the 17th century. And on the roof of the castle, a bronze statue of the Archangel Michael by 18th century sculptor Peter Anton von Verschaffelt was installed.

St. Angel’s Bridge

Originally, there were no sculptures of angels on the Bridge of the Holy Angel that leads to the castle. They were installed in 1667 by Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, who worked on the 10 statues for two years.

Castle of the Holy Angel

Photo: Pyty / Shutterstock.com

Legends

The name of the Castel Sant’Angelo comes from the following legend. If the legend is to be believed, in the year 590, the Archangel Michael appeared to Pope Gregory the Great, at the height of the plague epidemic, putting his sword in its scabbard, and thus symbolizing the end of the terrible disease. Thus the castle was named Saint Angel.

Over the centuries the history of the castle has been linked to the plight of martyrs imprisoned for life in the prison rooms that were located on its lower floors. Not surprisingly, there are many legends about ghosts and haunted souls of prisoners wandering around the castle and the bridge of the same name in search of peace.

The most famous legend is the story of the ghost of the woman Beatrice Cenci. Sentenced to execution for the murder of her own father, from whose terrible cruelty she suffered, the unfortunate woman was beheaded on September 11, 1599 at the age of 16. The execution took place in the square in front of the castle where her ghost appears every year on the night of September 11th.

What to see in the castle

If you’re thinking about whether or not to go inside the castle, the answer is obvious – of course, go! Even if you have to wait in line for a ticket during the summer season, it’s worth it.

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On the territory of the castle well preserved papal apartments, numerous halls, which were the top of historical events, as well as an interesting collection of weapons.

The following rooms have been preserved in the castle: the rooms of Alexander VI, Clement III, Clement VII, Clement VIII, the rooms of Pio IV, Giulio II by Giuliano da Sangallo, and the loggia of Paul III and Paul IV.

Other surviving rooms include:

  • The Library of Paul III and the Secret Archives;
  • The Treasury, which housed the wealth of the popes in the 16th century;
  • the triple rooms: this was once the apartment of Count Cagliostro;
  • Pompeano’s corridor, located between the Apollo Hall and the library;
  • the keeper’s room of the 18th-century castle;
  • the Apollo Hall, which served for social receptions;
  • Capella dei SS. Cosma e Damiano (Chapel of Saints Cosmas and Damiano);
  • the Halls of Adrianeo and Girande, decorated with frescoes of the 16th century;
  • the Baths of Clement VII, decorated by the famous Giovanni da Udine;
  • the courtyard of Alexander VI, which has a deep well;
  • the courtyard and chapel of Leone X.

In the Hall of Justice look out for medieval cannons and cannonballs. Here is part of a fresco depicting an angel. It was in this hall that the fate of prisoners was decided in the 16th century.

Also noteworthy is the Perseus Hall, decorated with scenes from the legend, as well as the Hall of Cupid and Psyche and the Paolina Hall. The banners of the Italian infantry are now kept in the hall of columns, erected by order of Benedict XIV.

If you walk through the circular hall, you will find yourself on the Terrazzo dell’Angelo. From there you can enjoy a panoramic view of the Vatican and the whole of Rome.

Other rooms

Wonderful is the ancient spiral gallery from the time of Emperor Hadrian, which was once used as a passageway to the tombs of emperors. Also of interest is the enclosed gallery, intended in the Middle Ages for the passage of pilgrims to the Pope.

Also worth seeing in the castle are the Courtyard of the Redeemer, the study of Boniface XI, the Chapel of the Holy Crucifix, where the condemned prayed to death and the courtyard that served for the execution of prisoners.

Next to the Loggia of Paul IV there are the prison quarters, which to a modern man resembles more a hole in the wall than a full-fledged cell.

In the castle there is a military arsenal, which displays a collection of weapons from the 15th to the 20th century.

Walking through the labyrinths of the castle, you feel as if you are transported back in time. And when you climb to the top of the castle – to its terrace – you can admire a breathtaking view of the modern city.

How to get to Castel Sant’Angelo

The Castel Sant’Angelo is located in the Parco Adriano. Its exact address is Lungotevere Castello, 50. How to get there:

  • If you decide to get to the castle by metro, you need to get off at the Ottaviano-San Pietro or Lepanto station (line A);
  • buses n° 62, 40, 23, 271, 280 or 982 take you to the Piazza Pia stop;
  • Take bus number 34 to Via di Porta Castello;
  • by bus nos. 49, 87, 926 and 990 to the crossing of Via Crescenzio and Piazza Cavour.

Castle opening hours and ticket prices

Museum hours of operation:

  • Monday through Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. (the ticket office closes at 6:30 p.m.);
  • Thursday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 00 a.m. (box office closes at 11 p.m.).

The cost of a ticket as of 2022 is 15 Euro.

Ticket prices and opening hours are subject to change – check the official website of the Castel Sant’Angelo at www.castelsantangelo.com.

Buy an admission ticket without waiting in line
  • You can buy tickets at the ticket office on site.
  • Purchase in advance on the ticketing service (guaranteed queue-free admission): www.musement.com/ru/rim/natsional-nyi-muzei-zamka-sant-andzhelo-bez-ocheredi-aviabilety-1360/.
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Visit also

After leaving the castle, you immediately get to the bridge of the same name, which is also always full of tourists taking pictures and admiring the stunning views of the promenade, the Vatican, the castle…

Be sure to walk across the bridge, it holds a lot of secrets, and the history of its appearance is no less interesting than the history of the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Excursions in Rome

If you want something more interesting than the traditional walk around the city on a map, then try a new format of sightseeing. In modern times, more and more popular are unusual excursions from the locals! After all, who better than a local knows the history and the most interesting places in Rome?

You can see all the tours and choose the most intriguing on the Tripster website.

Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome

The Castel Sant’Angelo, also known as Mausoleum of Hadrian or the sad castle, is a fortress of Rome, connected to the Vatican by a secret underground passage. The castle has an unusual fate compared to other famous monuments of the ancient culture of the capital: at a time when most structures of the Roman era have turned into ruins and quarries, the material of which was used to create more modern buildings, the Castle of the Holy Angelo, depending on the era, changed its status and sometimes appearance. Its purpose went from an imperial tomb to a military fortification, from a papal apartment to a dark and terrible prison, from a magnificent Renaissance residence to a museum. With its magnificent interiors, powerful walls, richly frescoed halls, the Castel Sant’Angelo reflects the very history of the Eternal City. Here past and present are inextricably linked.

From the history of the Castel Sant’Angelo

The history of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome begins with its construction commissioned by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a tomb in 123. Construction was completed after the emperor’s death, in 139. It was a rounded cylindrical building with a square base and equestrian statues in the corners. On top it was decorated with a cypress garden and the emperor’s bronze chariot in the image of Helios, the sun god. The main part of the mausoleum, which contained the urns with the ashes of the imperial family, was entered by an internal spiral ramp, which has survived to this day. The entrance to the mausoleum was foreshadowed by the Elian bridge of five arches covered with marble, which is still one of the main decorations of the castle.

Toward the end of the 3rd century, attacks of nomadic tribes on Rome became more frequent and it was necessary to strengthen the defense. Since then, the tomb of Hadrian acquired the status of a fortress, becoming part of the Aurelian wall defenses.

The Castle of St. Angelus continued to be a defensive structure in the Middle Ages. At that time a closed corridor, the Passetto, was built to it from the Vatican. It allowed the pontiffs to quickly hide in the castle in case of danger. Thanks to this corridor, in the 16th century, Pope Clement VII managed to escape during the siege of the Vatican by the troops of the French king Charles V. At the same time, the Castel Sant’Angelo was used as a prison for convicts and gained its fame as the “sad castle”.

Over time, the fortress became the second residence of the popes, which contributed to the considerable enrichment of its interiors with frescoes by famous artists, works of art and luxuriously decorated furniture. A special place in the history of the castle belongs to the name of the infamous pontiff Alexander VI Borgia. Under him the castle was transformed into a real palace with its inherent feasts and entertainments, of which playing musicians and actors’ comedies amused the pope no less than torture and executions.

During the Renaissance, after the accession of Paul III, the apartments were enriched by fresco decorations with elements of Roman mythology, in keeping with the style of the period. Under Pope Paul IV, the building was fortified with a pentagonal defensive bastion. Since then, the architecture of the Castel Sant’Angelo has not particularly changed.

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After the unification of Italy in 1871, the practical use of the castle became irrelevant, so it was decided to turn it into a military museum, which was inaugurated by the first Italian ruler Victor Emmanuel III in 1906.

Castel Sant’Angelo Museum

In the 20th century the museum acquired the status of the National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo. It houses a large collection of paintings, sculptures, war relics and medieval firearms. Wandering around the castle at night is especially interesting – it’s among the extraordinary experiences to be had in Rome – so it’s worth paying attention to the castle’s unscheduled openings for visits after sunset.

The most famous halls

Each hall represents a different part of Roman history. Thanks to excavations conducted several times inside the building, the museum’s collections, and private donations, you can uncover the secrets of its long mysterious life.

Courtyard of the Savior

From this place begins any tour of the castle. It is a narrow courtyard, the name of which comes from the marble bust of Christ from the fifteenth century. Here are also the apartments of Pope Boniface XI, the Court of Executions, where the death sentences were carried out, and the Chapel of the Holy Crucifix, where the condemned could read their last prayer and where today the museum bookshop is located.

Mausoleum of Hadrian

The oldest place in the castle is Hadrian’s Mausoleum, which is three meters lower than the present first floor. You can go down into it by an iron staircase. The Hall of the Urns is the heart of the whole structure; it holds the imperial remains. It’s not hard to guess that time has taken away all evidence of its former splendor, but it is more the symbolism of its significance that attracts to this hall.

Prisons

One of the most gruesome parts of the castle are the prisons, small and narrow recesses into which cardinals who planned plots against the pope and humanists whose ideas were inconvenient to the church were imprisoned. Among the castle’s most famous prisoners were the philosopher and astronomer Giordano Bruno, imprisoned for heresy; his fellow astronomer and physicist Galileo Galilei, also displeased by the Church with his dissent; Beatrice Cenci, a victim of intrigue, sentenced to execution for killing her father; and the architect and musician Benvenuto Cellini, accused of theft.

During the siege, the Castle had to provide autonomy for a long period, so there are 83 containers for olive oil and silos for grain.

Then there is the Court of the Angel, which gets its name from the statue of the Archangel Michael, erected here in 1747. From here you can visit the various papal residences with their courtyards and the beautiful Italian gardens in which they walked.

Court of Alexander VI

Alexander VI’s courtyard is known by different names – the Court of the Oil because it was the first place to go to the oil storeroom, the Well Court because of the great well located there or the Theatre Court, which was also the site of theatrical plays. This courtyard continues onto Leon X’s courtyard, with its small and well-kept Italian garden, and the rooms of Pope Clement VII, with his private bathroom, considered a status symbol of the times, reminding one of the splendours of Imperial Ancient Rome and its baths.

The Covered Gallery

The covered gallery is interesting because in this part of the castle one can trace its archaeological history. Here are collected architectural fragments and sculptures that belonged to the building in different historical periods. This ancient covered walkway, on which popes could walk even in bad weather, leads to the small rooms where Pius IV lived, later converted into luxury cells for special prisoners. There is also the Open Gallery, which today houses an interesting collection of weapons of various kinds.

Paolin’s Hall

The Paolin’s Hall is one of the most lavishly decorated halls in the entire castle, famous for its precious and exquisite decorations, paintings and frescoes. It extends into the Perseus Room, so named in honor of the hero depicted there. The interior is fully furnished, but its furniture does not reflect the real historical context of the time. As in the ceremonial Hall of Cupid and Psyche, the interior was organized quite arbitrarily according to the ideas of the restorers rather than its historical reality.

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The Treasury

Here in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the treasures of the popes were kept, then it became one of the rooms that for many years was used as a prison, as evidenced by the engraved inscriptions on the cabinets. The Cagliostro Room recalls the castle’s famous prisoner, Count Cagliostro. The ornate residences of the popes transition into the famous terrace with the Angel, which inspired the composer Puccini, for the tragic final scene of his opera Tosca.

The terrace features a large statue of the Angel, cast in 1752 to replace the previous one, and a condemned bell that announced to the Romans someone’s death sentence.

Curious Facts

The name of the Castle.

Before 590, the monument that is now known as the Castel Sant’Angelo was called the Mausoleum of Hadrian, for the very reason we just mentioned. In 590, however, Rome was struck by the plague. According to legend, during the procession of the cross around the Mausoleum, Pope Gregory I saw the archangel Michael holding a sword, signifying the end of the plague. The plague actually ended, and to this day one can still see traces of the archangel on the stone, at the site of his miraculous apparition. Thus, in honor of the archangel Michael and the good news he brought, Hadrian’s mausoleum in Rome was renamed Castel Sant’Angelo, and a statue of the angel was placed on top of it.

Angel

The statue of the Angel, has an interesting and long-suffering history. It was originally made of wood, but because of the fragility of the material, it quickly crumbled and was replaced by a marble angel, which in turn was destroyed during the siege in 1379. It was followed by a third statue, also made of marble with bronze wings. It was cracked by lightning in 1497; it was replaced by a statue of gilded bronze on top of St. Angel’s Castle, but this too was removed from its privileged position some time later, in favor of installing cannons for defense against the Lankvin attack in 1527. After another marble and bronze angel, the last bronze angel was cast in 1573, which has survived to this day.

When we imagine the Castle of the Holy Angel, we first imagine the image of a fortress towering over the Bridge of the Holy Angel, also known as the Bridge of Elio, an iconic structure adorned with marble statues. In the place of these magnificent works by the sculptor Bernini, which everyone enjoys admiring today, the beheadings of those condemned to death hung during the Inquisition. Such gruesome decorations served as an instruction to passers-by about the importance of righteousness of thought and behavior in life.

The Executioner

And of course all those heads didn’t fall off on their own. They were taken care of by full-time papal executioners. One of them in the nineteenth century was Mastro Titta, an executioner and also an umbrella maker. His house and workshop were in Borgo, a few steps from the Castel Sant’Angelo, so whenever his services were needed in the main squares across the Tiber, he did not have to wait long, just to cross the famous bridge.

In pop culture.

St. Angel’s Castle has inspired filmmakers and songwriters throughout its history. Its terrace is where Tosca rushes down from in the final act of Puccini’s famous opera of the same name. The castle also appears in the Hollywood movie Angels and Demons and in the video games Assassin’s Creed II and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.

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