Urns and emperors
Castel Sant’Angelo is a vast cylindrical fortress of stone and brick, located in Parco Adriano opposite St. Peter’s Square
. The oldest parts of the castle were built between 123-139 AD as a funerary tomb for the Roman Emperor Hadrian, and it was at that time the tallest building in Rome; it is still sometimes referred to as The Mausoleum of Hadrian.
Like so many buildings in Rome Castel Sant’Angelo has a fascinatingly layered history, and what can be seen today is Hadrian’s ancient Roman building with medieval and Renaissance features superimposed or added in later years. The original design comprised a square base with a large cylindrical fort above it, featuring a hanging garden and topped by a tower housing the Emperor’s burial chamber, which would have been decorated with statues of marble and bronze.
The building continued to function as Imperial mausoleum until the ashes of Caracalla were placed there in 217 AD; in 401 AD it was converted to a fortified castle. It was sacked by the Visigoths in 410 AD, and the urns and ashes were lost - apart from the capstone of what was probably Hadrian’s urn, which survives as a baptismal font in St. Peter’s Basilica
. The decorative statues were thrown down on attacking Goths in 537 AD. In the 16th century it became a palace used by various Popes of Rome, who carried out significant modifications to its structure and interior design. It has also been used as a prison; the astronomer Giordano Bruno
was held here for six years.
The name Castel Sant’Angelo dates from the 6th century when, according to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared on top of the Mausoleum with a flaming sword in hand. This miraculous apparition occurred during the papacy of Gregory the Great in 590. At that time a great plague was wreaking havoc in the city, and in order to invoke God’s mercy Pope Gregory organised a mass procession to the tomb of St. Peter. During the procession the people of Rome saw a radiant vision of an angel sheathing a sword of fire, and thus ended the plague.
The angel has been associated with the building ever since. The bronze angel with a sword which visitors see today is a 1793 replacement for various angel statues which have adorned the Castel throughout the centuries. Visitors may see the previous occupant inside the castle today: the mid-15th Century marble angel with copper wings by Raffaello Montelupo is on display in the courtyard.
Styles upon styles
Standing on the ground floor you may look down and see the tops of Roman arches protruding from the ground; looking up, you will see modern battlements decorated with beautiful Renaissance frescoes. The Mausoleum entrance takes you first into a square atrium, which once would have been lined with marble panels (you can still see the pin marks) and a long gone statue of Hadrian facing the doorway. From there you can follow the spiralling ramp to Hadrian’s burial chamber at the centre. Remnants of the original mosaic floor can still be seen. From here you will arrive at the Room of the Urns, where some Roman urns are on show.
From the ancient heart of the building you will emerge onto the more modern castle walkways. Here you will be privy to some spectacular views, and can even sit and enjoy a drink in the café on the walls. There are a number of Papal rooms which can be accessed from here: the Farnese apartments commissioned by Pope Paul III are particularly magnificent in their sumptuous decoration and their allusions to classical Greek and Roman mythology. Pope Alexander VI Borgia also had a tunnel built connecting the Castel with St. Peter’s so that he could make a quick escape from the Vatican undetected, and built the Tower Borgia, the tower’s last defensive addition.