Rome 2008: Castel Sant’Angelo

[previous entries in this travel series:]

Castel Sant’Angelo translates as the castle of the holy angel, and is a very ancient building indeed. Originally built around the year 135, it was intended by the Emporer Hadrian to serve as a mausoleum for himself and his family. Initially, the building consisted of a cylinder with a garden and a golden chariot at the top, and the ashes were deposited in urns deep within its core. The remains of Caracalla were the last deposited here, in the 3rd century.

The building was converted into a military fortress in 401, and when sacked by the Visigoths soon after, most of the urns and their remains were lost. Hadrian would no doubt be horrified to learn, however, that the huge capstone of his own urn survived and was converted to use as a Christian baptismal font at St. Peter’s Basilica. Castel Sant’Angelo acquired its current name when, during the plague outbreak in 590, the Archangel Michael appeared brandishing a flaming sword atop the fortress, which he then slid into its sheath, thus signifying the plague’s end.

Gradually, the castel was taken over by the Papacy, enlarged, and converted to a castle, in which elaborately decorated apartments and reception rooms were constructed. A covered passage disguised as a simple wall was built joining the castle to St Peter’s, for use by the Pope and his entourage during times of danger. At times, prisoners considered threats to the Papacy were kept in the castle, with executions carried out in the central courtyard. The opera Tosca, in which the heroine commits suicide by jumping from the parapet after the execution of her lover, was set in part at Sant’Angelo.

The famous statue of Michael that graces the very top of this imposing edifice was created by Flemish sculptor von Verschaffelt in 1753, to replace an earlier version.

Decommissioned in 1901, Caste’ Sant’Angelo is now a national museum, which we visited February 12th. Unfortunately, the Papal apartments were not open that day, but we rented an audio guide and enjoyed exploring nonetheless.


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