Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome: refuge, treasury, prison

It is difficult to say from what distance the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome makes the strongest impression. Both close and from afar, its round tower literally hangs over the buildings surrounding it.

… because this fortress was inconvenient for a siege …
The Second Book of Maccabees 12:21

Castles and fortresses. Something for a long time at our “VO” there was nothing about locks. And this is a very serious omission on my part, because it is interesting for people to read about locks. And although it will still not be possible to tell about all the preserved castles, in relation to some of them it is simply necessary. And this is especially true of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, which, in fact, became a model for castle builders in Europe, and initially it was not a castle. This is such an amazing building, and today we will tell you about it.

The bronze archangel Michael crowns the castle. It was in his honor that he got his name.


We should start with its not quite unusual name. After all, initially it was not a castle, but a luxurious mausoleum for the Roman emperors. Then it was turned into a fortified refuge for the popes, a treasury of their wealth, a prison where both political criminals and religious heretics and even the artist Benvenuto Cellini were kept. In addition, many stories and amazing legends are associated with it. And even Dan Brown chose Castel Sant’Angelo as a haven for the evil Illuminati.

We go to the castle over the bridge over the Tiber


It is not difficult to get to it if you find yourself in Rome. It is built on the right bank of the Tiber River at a distance of a kilometer from St. Peter’s Cathedral and the Vatican.

The Tiber in Rome is a shallow and muddy river … especially in summer!


From the left bank, where such iconic structures as the Colosseum, the Roman Forum and the Pantheon are located, there is a pedestrian bridge to the Castel Sant’Angelo, which is decorated with figures of angels. The castle itself is surrounded by the Hadrian Park with a characteristic “star” shape that follows the outer contour of this castle. It is interesting that in winter the Romans skate here and admire the castle at the same time. However, in the Roman summer heat, it will take some imagination to imagine this!

The very central tower of the castle is surrounded by four later bastions, on which the cannons were placed


The most interesting thing is that the Castel Sant’Angelo had nothing to do with angels from the very beginning, and there were no popes when it was built. And it is not surprising: after all, it was built in the II century A.D. as a magnificent tomb of the emperor Hadrian, as well as members of his family and all his subsequent successors. In the years 139-217. AD in this mausoleum the ashes of a number of emperors were buried, the last among whom was the emperor Caracalla.

General plan of the Castel Sant’Angelo and the surrounding area


Emperor Hadrian spent a significant part of his life on campaigns, traveled throughout the empire, but in Rome itself he was quite rare. Therefore, it was here that he wanted to build something grandiose, and, of course, associated with his name. This is how Hadrian’s mausoleum was born, decorated with statues of people and animals, with a beautiful garden with a square base, where two colonnades with columns of different heights were erected. At the top of the mausoleum was a statue of the emperor Hadrian, represented as the sun god Helios, standing on a golden quadriga chariot, that is, a chariot drawn by four horses.

Underground galleries of the castle


The first mausoleum in Rome was built for the Emperor Octavian Augustus. Hadrian’s mausoleum was the second, but it became the tallest building in the city at the time of construction. And then dry pragmatism began …

Marble bust of Emperor Hadrian from Hadrian’s mausoleum. Castel Sant’Angelo National Museum, Rome


In 270 A.D. the empire and Rome began to be threatened by the Goths. Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who ruled at that time, ordered Rome to be fortified with a second line of walls, and the mausoleum of Hadrian was included in this protective perimeter, the size and strength of the walls of which allowed it to play the role of an important fortification. And it should be noted that only due to its protective functionality, this pagan, in general, building has survived to this day, and was not dismantled by righteous Christians into stones, as it happened in the case of other ancient buildings.

Model of the original view of Hadrian’s mausoleum. Castel Sant’Angelo National Museum, Rome


True, the mausoleum of Hadrian still lost its external splendor: it lost both statues and decor, that is, everything that adorned it under the emperors. In the Middle Ages, the mausoleum became a fortress, therefore it lost all architectural excesses.

And it turned out that today the castle of St. Angel is most like a puff cake! At the base is the foundation of Hadrian’s mausoleum, but everything above it is the later additions and additions of various popes, who used this structure as their spare residence in case of various disasters.

It’s good to hide in the dungeons of the castle from the unbearable Roman heat


Interestingly, the very Christian name of the castle is associated with the plague epidemic in 590. Then in Rome many people died from it, no one knew when this scourge would come to an end. But here the Archangel Michael appeared to Pope Gregory the Great in a dream, and not just anywhere, but in the imperial mausoleum. He sheathed his sword, and it was considered a happy omen – a sign that the epidemic would soon end! It is clear that this is what happened.

The original structure of Hadrian’s mausoleum. Castel Sant’Angelo National Museum, Rome


For the miracle sent down by the archangel, he was thanked: the castle was renamed, and a wooden statue of it was put on its top. Then it was changed several times. Today the figure of the archangel over the castle is bronze.

Corridor leading to the library


In the Middle Ages, circumstances forced the popes to use the Castel Sant’Angelo as a refuge. And Pope Nicholas III, in 1277, ordered the construction of Passeto, a special passage along a high fortress wall 800 meters long, which connected the Vatican with the castle. Now the dads could use it to quickly go to the castle and escape there, if not for good, then for a while. And this move really came in handy for the dads. So, Pope Alexander VI used it to escape when the troops of King Charles VIII of France attacked Rome in 1494.

Here it is, Passetto, – a passage to the castle, going along the wall above the city!


And the most famous case when this passage and the castle really saved the life of the Pope is connected with the siege of Rome by the troops of Emperor Charles V in 1527, after which the city was taken and brutally plundered. Then Pope Clement VII managed to escape from the Vatican precisely along the Passetto and wait out the “invasion” outside its walls. But almost all of his Swiss guards from the personal guard then died defending St. Peter’s Cathedral, and the population of Rome decreased from 55,000 to 10,000 people. By the way, the prisoners were taken along the same wall from the prison of the castle to the Vatican for interrogation and trial.

Passetto approaches San Marco Bastion


Gradually, the appearance of the Castle of St. Angela approached what we know today. At the same time, in the course of numerous reconstructions, its foundation was expanded, battlements and artillery bastions were added, a ditch was dug around, and a gate equipped with a drawbridge was erected.

Bastion of San Marco, as you can see, was well supplied with artillery and a supply of stone cannonballs!

In the thickness of the stone walls of the castle, you can see such artillery casemates with cannons of the 15th century.


By the end of the 16th century, the castle began to look more like a palace than a fortress.

The pyramids of stone cores to the tools are also impressive. This is how much stone had to be delivered and how much work did the stonemasons have to hew out so many of such kernels ?!


Inside the castle, the coats of arms of the popes are visible everywhere, so it would not be an exaggeration to say that the entire history of the papacy is represented on its walls. There are Medici pills, Farnese lilies, Barberini bees, and a red bull of the Borgia family. And every Pope tried to have a hand in not only strengthening this castle, but also adapting it to the existing fashion. But someone, of course, did more than others. Among them was Pope Paul III Farnese, who invited the most talented Italian masters to decorate the interiors of the castle, who painted its premises with exquisite frescoes and decorated them with sculptures, paintings and marble columns.

Another artillery casemate … Pope Boniface IX (1389-1404) took care of equipping the castle with the latest technology


Such an inaccessible structure in the very center of Rome for secret meetings, and besides, it was also so richly decorated, of course, could not but be used for all sorts of secret meetings and not too advertised “events”. In particular, it is believed that the most dissolute Roman Pope Alexander VI Borgia exactly in the Castle of the Holy Angel met with his numerous mistresses and arranged orgies. But who knows if all this was really so, because human rumor simply loves to exaggerate, especially in relation to those whom she identified as scapegoats.

By the way, in the courtyard of the castle you can also see a replica of this strange throwing machine.


The Castle of St. Angela became famous also for the fact that it served as a prison for persons objectionable to the popes. There were chambers and torture rooms. Moreover, very, very remarkable personalities languished in prison here: the famous sculptor, painter and to a large extent adventurer Benvenuto Cellini, the heretic Giordano Bruno and … Count Cagliostro. Some popes were also able to be prisoners in this castle. It is not without reason that it is said that no one should excuse himself from the bag and from the prison. And even dads …

Bronze statue of Emperor Hadrian in the park near the castle


The prison in the castle was closed only in 1901: this is how much the society demanded for its gloomy inaccessibility.

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