Castel Sant’Angelo: shrine, fortress, Papal residence and prison

Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome

The Castel Sant’Angelo or Mausoleum of Hadrian is one of the most popular tourist sites 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 territory of the castle 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.

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The Castel Sant'Angelo

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.

The Castel Sant'Angelo

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.

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.

The Castel Sant'Angelo

Photo: Elena Odareeva / Shutterstock.com

The Castel Sant'Angelo

Photo: NickArm / Shutterstock.com

The Castel Sant'Angelo

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.

The Castel Sant'Angelo

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.

The Castel Sant'Angelo

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 sheath, and thus symbolizing the end of the terrible disease. Thus the castle was named after the Holy 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.

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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.

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 Garland, 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 Hall of Paolina. 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

The ancient spiral gallery from the time of the Emperor Hadrian, which was once used as a passageway to the tombs of the emperors, is beautiful. 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 looks more like 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.

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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 have 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/.

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

Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome

The Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome (Castel Sant’Angelo) has a grandiose appearance and an equally impressive history. This cylindrical mausoleum, built at the beginning of Christianity on the banks of the Tiber, was the last resting place of the Roman emperor, the residence of the pontiffs, a fort, a dungeon and eventually a museum and a treasury.

History

Mausoleum of Hadrian

Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome - History

The tomb of Emperor Publius Hadrianus was erected on a high bank of the river around 139 AD. The original mausoleum had a cylindrical shape and was richly decorated. The flat roof of the building was decorated with an ornamental garden, in the center of which a gilded quadriga was placed. In 138 AD the ashes of the Emperor Hadrian were placed in the tomb together with those of his wife Sabina and his adopted son. It was also on Hadrian’s orders that the Bridge of the Holy Angel (Ponte Sant’Angelo) was built, leading from the center of Rome to the tomb.

The Decline

In the 5th century A.D., Hadrian’s Mausoleum had lost its initial splendor and solemnity because it was gradually turned into a military fortress. During the Goth invasion, most of the bronze decorations, urns and statues were stolen or destroyed.

Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome in the morning

There is a legend that says that the Archangel Michael appeared above the mausoleum, putting his sword in its scabbard . Thus marked the end of the plague in A.D. 590. In honor of this sign the mausoleum received its present name.

One more curious fact: in Italy, and in many other European countries to the person who has just sneezed they say “Blessed, be!”, analog of our “Bless you! So, in the Middle Ages it was believed that the plague begins with sneezing attacks. And only God could help someone who was sick with the plague!

Fortress, Papal Residence and Prison

Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome - An engraving by Piranesi

By the 14th century, the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome had become the residence of the popes. Nicolaus III, connected the castle to the Basilica Papale di San Pietro in Vaticano with a covered corridor called the Passetto di Borgo. During the invasion of Rome in 1527 by the army of Charles V, Pope Clement VII found shelter within the castle. The inhabitants of the besieged fort actively attacked the attackers, through the battlement windows. Among the glorious defenders was the sculptor-jeweler Benvenuto Cellini (Benvenuto Cellini).

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Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome - Corridors of castle

A little later the pontificate arranged comfortable apartments on the grounds of the mausoleum, in case the history of the siege of the capital was repeated. Sadly enough, the Catholic Church also had to organize a dungeon within the walls of the fortified castle.

Thus, the famous medieval scientist, astrologer and Dominican monk Giordano Bruno was imprisoned within the walls of Castelo San Angelo for 6 years!

It is noteworthy that Benvenuto Cellini, defender of the fort, fell into the disfavor of the pontificate some time later and was also imprisoned. A dexterous and skillful sculptor, Cellini managed to escape from the castle.

In 1901 the Castel Sant’Angelo was officially declared a national museum (Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo).

Architecture

Even under Emperor Hadrian the basic architectural ensemble of the Castel Sant’Angelo was formed. The powerful cubic base was faced with expensive marble. On top on a pedestal rose the “puck” of the mausoleum, made of volcanic stone. The outside of the structure was lined with travertine and decorated with carved pilasters in the form of cattle heads (Bucrani). The tomb was surrounded by a wall with decorative and fortification functions.

Today, the castle looks much more modest than it did under Hadrian. The travertine, marble, pilasters and bronzes have been lost to the ages. However, the external structure of the mausoleum remained virtually unchanged. Much more strongly the structure was transformed from inside. The ancient tombs in which the emperor and his family rested, as well as Antony Pius, Mark Antony and those close to them, were badly destroyed. The urns containing the ashes were lost.

Castel of Saint Angel in Rome - Bastion

As early as the 14th century, the mausoleum was turned into a fortress. Pope Bonifacio IX commissioned the architect Niccolò Lamberti to reinforce the castle walls, equip the bastions and create a single entrance in the form of a drawbridge. A new room, the Cappella San Michele Arcangelo, was added to the building.

In the 15th century, Pope Alexander VI (Alessandro VI) of the Borgia family tasked the architect Antonio Giamberti da Sangallo the elder with turning the castle into a full-fledged military stronghold. Four bastions fortified the building, as well as a moat was dug around the buildings. The fortress was equipped with papal apartments, where frescoes were painted by Pinturicchio himself. Alexander VI’s new palace was used for sumptuous receptions and celebrations.

Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome - Angel's Yard

In 1536 Raffaello da Montelupo created a statue of the Archangel Michael with a sword. The marble saint with bronze wings reminds the Romans of the events described in the legend and guards the castle. In the 17th century the Angel’s Courtyard appears on the castle grounds, where the Archangel, played by de Montelupo, finds his place.

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In the second half of the 17th century, Urban VIII (lat. Urbano VIII) destroyed most of the military and decorative structures of the 15th-16th century to create a new version of the fort with a strong defensive wall and fortifications. In 1667, the Ponte Sant’Angelo (Bridge of Sant’Angelo) leading to the castle began to be decorated with statues of angels. In the next 2 years, Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini and his students created 10 sculptures in the Baroque style, which protect the bridge to the present day.

Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome - Bronze Statue of Archangel Michael

In the 18th century, the stone Archangel Michael was continued in bronze. The work of Flemish sculptor Peter Anton von Verschaffelt still decorates the roof of the castle.

The castle observation deck offers stunning views of Rome. I invite you to my author’s excursion to the Cathedral of St. Peter and the Angel’s Castle at dawn.

What to see

Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome - Top view

For modern visitors, the Castel Sant’Angelo appears as an attraction divided into 6 levels:

  1. The courtyard of the Savior, the working rooms of Boniface XI, the patio where the execution of the condemned was previously carried out, the Chapel of the Holy Crucifix, which served for the last prayer of the prisoners condemned to death, the Roman atrium, the ancient archway leading to Hadrian’s tomb and the spiral descent to the tomb.
  2. The corridor and hall where the ashes of the emperor and his family were kept, the prison rooms, the storerooms for grain and food created in the 16th century and the rooms for storing oil, a universal tool in case of siege.
  3. The Courtroom is decorated with medieval cannons and cannonballs, on the wall is part of a fresco depicting an angel, the Apollo Hall is the place for social receptions that served the pontiffs, the Capella dei Saints Cosmas and Damian (Capella dei SS. Cosma e Damiano), the hall of Clement VII, the courtyard of Alexander VI with a well, the courtyard and chapel of Leone X, the beautifully decorated bath of Clement VII by Giovanni da Udine.
  4. The cloistered gallery, through which, in the Middle Ages, the pilgrims made their way to meet the Pope and the rooms of Pio IV. The rooms of Pio IV, the Loggia Giulio II with a view of the city and the Elio bridge, attributed to Giuliano da Sangallo, the extensive armoury with a collection of weapons and military uniforms of the 15th-20th centuries, Paul III is on the opposite side from the Loggia Giuliano (facing Via Flaminia) and the Paolina Room is part of the most beautifully furnished apartments of Paul III Farnese. Paulus III), the Perseus Room is thematically decorated after the legend of the same name; the Hall of Cupid and Psyche continues the theme of mythology.
  5. The Treasure Room is a circular room that housed the riches of the pontificate in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Library, begun by Paul III, the Adrianeo and Giralda Rooms, richly decorated with frescoes of the 16th century, the triple rooms The three rooms, named Cagliostra, were originally the apartments of Count Cagliostro himself; between the library and the Apollo Room is the Pompeano Passage, richly decorated with an intricate ceiling painting; the room of the Chamberlain of the 18th century.
  6. The circular hall, the columns hall, built and decorated with marble columns and commissioned by Benedict XIV, is now the storeroom for the banners of the Italian infantry. The circular hall gives access to the Terrazzo dell’Angelo, which offers an unforgettable view over Rome.
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