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Castel Sant’Angelo History

Visitors will come across a miraculous sight as they follow the river’s bend at night.

A team of heavenly angels, their sparkling white figures shimmering in the dark, traverses the waters between the city center and the Vatican. 

At the end of the journey stands a towering hulk of brick and stone, above which appears their captain, Archangel Michael.

This is the Holy Angel Castle, also known as Castel Sant’Angelo. 

His outstretched wings are gleaming against the night sky.

You can visit Castel Sant’Angelo with an entry ticket, which will allow you to witness all parts of Castel Sant’Angelo history.

Dive in to learn more about the history of Castel Sant Angelo.

The Archangel and the Plague: The Legend of the Castel Sant’Angelo Statue

Archangel
Image : Shaun Jeffers

The stronghold comes from an old legend dating back to the Dark Ages. 

A horrible plague struck Rome around the end of the sixth century AD. 

With thousands of people becoming ill and dead bodies clogging the streets.

Pope Gregory the Great led a parade through the city, pleading with God to spare those still alive.

Looking up at Emperor Hadrian’s grand mausoleum, which had long fallen into disuse and ruin, Pope Gregory saw a glowing figure atop the gigantic tomb. 

It was an angel, shining brightly and wielding a sword. The angel dropped his weapon and returned it to its sheath as the Pope looked on. 

The message was clear: the epidemic had ended, and God’s wrath had been appeased.

This story is commemorated today by a statue atop Castel Sant’Angelo. 

The current bronze version dates from the 1700s, replacing an older marble counterpart that stood in the exact location. 

The sculpture of the archangel Michael reminds the residents of this Catholic capital that God’s grace is there even when things appear to be at their worst.

From Monument to Battlement: Castel Sant’Angelo’s Later History

Rome’s urban history is re-used, with medieval and Renaissance residents using what the ancients left behind. 

Hadrian’s tomb was a natural defense site, an artificial mountain with sheer walls reaching 160 feet. 

The emperor had put his tomb on the bend in the river to enhance visibility. It was the ideal location for a stronghold for a Papacy under assault.

The tomb was gradually transformed into a castle; part of the fortifications were completed under Pope Alexander VI. 

However, interior embellishments continued under subsequent popes, including Leo X, who commissioned Michelangelo to build the front of an interior courtyard. 

In the late sixteenth century, the inside looked more like a palace than a castle.

The Pope would remain here during the summer to enjoy the fresh breezes from the river.

Despite its ornate appearance, the fortress maintained its military duties and was the papacy’s last refuge. 

Its most renowned defense was an old Middle Ages trick: the Passetto di Borgo, a hidden conduit that leads from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo. 

When Rome was attacked in 1527, the whole battalion of Swiss Guards was slaughtered, but Pope Clement VII escaped through Castel Sant’Angelo’s secret staircase.

Rome’s Castel Sant Angelo – A papal party house

Pope Alexander VI, who had fled to the fortress in fear for his life, genuinely liked his stay. 

Some of the rooms were transformed into his private party castle, filled with exquisite paintings by the top artists of the day.

The coat of arms of the Borgia pope used to grace the castle’s outer wall.

But French troops mostly destroyed these during the 19th-century war to unify Italy.

Inside the castle, you can see an entire coat of arms. 

Pope Paul III (Farnese) greatly decorated the papal lodgings in 1542 so that he and successive popes could socialize in grandeur.

Some Renaissance art has been lost, but much of it has survived and is truly incredible.

The location of a terrible prison and executions

When it was no longer a tomb, Castel Sant Angelo in Rome was utilized as a prison.

Before their executions, prisoners were detained there. They were sometimes left to starve to death (similar to the much more ancient Mamertine Prison). 

Pope Alexander VI allegedly conducted sumptuous parties directly above the dungeons where the condemned were imprisoned.

Executions were occasionally carried out in the courtyard. However, they were displayed on a platform before the castle for dramatic effect. 

Popes, nobility, artists, and philosophers were imprisoned and executed during the Middle Ages.

Caravaggio, Giordano Bruno, Beatrice Cenci, Benvenuto Cellini, and “il Cagliostro” are famous captives.

Castel Sant Angelo is a museum today

After Italy’s late nineteenth-century unification, Castel Sant’Angelo was converted into military barracks. 

It was renovated into the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo in 1901.

From the ancient Roman buildings to Renaissance art, you will learn everything related to Castel Sant’Angelo history once you visit this attraction. 

FAQs 

What is the mystery of Castel Sant Angelo?

Castel Sant’Angelo has a unique history, making it one of Rome’s most distinctive structures. 

The castle was not always a fortress but rather the tomb of Emperor Hadrian, who died in 138 AD.

What is contained within Castel Sant Angelo?

In the 14th century, Castel Sant’Angelo became a military castle connected to the Vatican via an elevated corridor known as the “Passetto di Borgo,” which still exists today. 

It was then converted into a prison, where executions were carried out and detainees were left to starve.

What is the significance of the name Castel Sant Angelo?

The top statue depicts Michael the Archangel, the angel that inspired the building’s name.

When was Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo constructed?

Castel Sant’Angelo was originally the Mausoleum of the Roman emperor Hadrian.

Later, it became the burial place of the Antonine emperors until the reign of Caracalla.

It was constructed between AD 135 and 139 and became a fortress in the 5th century.

What is the Rome-based Castel Sant’Angelo notable for?

The Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome is famous for housing Emperor Hadrian’s tomb.

Throughout history, it has also served as a fortress and prison for the Papal residents. The museum is now known for its cultural and historical significance.

Where is the tomb of Hadrian?

The Hadrian’s Mausoleum is also known as Castel Sant’Angelo. It is an architectural masterpiece by Emperor Hadrian. 

The Mausoleum in Rome was built to house the Emperor’s and his family’s ashes.

Does Rome’s Castle Sant’Angelo still exist?

In AD 123–139, the Roman Emperor Hadrian commissioned Castel Sant’Angelo Rome as a mausoleum for himself and his successors. 

The structure has served as a fortress, prison, and Papal Quarters. It is currently used as a museum.

Featured Image: Walksinsiderome.com

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