It’s All About the View

Castel Sant’Angelo. It started out as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian. A massive cylindrical drum sitting on an equally massive stone base and topped by a golden quadriga—sculpture of a chariot pulled by four horses running abreast. Visualize a giant stone birthday cake with horses on top! To connect his future burial place with the center of Rome, Hadrian built* Pons Aelius (Bridge of Hadrian), now called Ponte Sant’Angelo.

The ashes of Emperors from Hadrian through Caracalla were interred here. But around AD 400, with the stability of the Empire getting shaky, the Imperial resting place was converted to a military fortress. Unfortunately, this did not deter the Visigoths (“barbarians”), who soon arrived and scattered the ashes of Emperors to the four winds.

With the rise of Christianity, the Church took over the fortress, decided it looked like a safe place to hole up in time of trouble, and built an elevated escape passage (Passeto) so the Pope and his entourage could reach it safely from Vatican City.

The why and how of its name? Legend has it that in AD 590, the Archangel Michael appeared atop the mausoleum-turned-fortress and was seen sheathing his sword. Romans believed this signaled the end of the terrible plague that had gripped the city.

Another legend links Michael with the Black Plague (Black Death) that devastated Europe in the middle of the 1300s. In that version the Archangel (assisting the outraged Pope) was seen sheathing his sword after destroying a pagan idol that the populace had been worshiping out of desperation. These legends were no doubt the inspiration for the bronze statue of the guardian Archangel that stands at the pinnacle of the fortress—a fierce, yet protective, presence.

In 1527, as war raged between the Papal States and the Holy Roman Empire, Pope Clement VII hid out here while the mutinous troops of Charles V looted the city (Clement eventually paid a ransom of 400,000 ducati in exchange for his life). Later Popes added a chapel and a lavish apartment, so if the place were ever needed for refuge in the future it would be appropriately comfortable. Meanwhile, the Papal States used the fortress as a prison.** Executions were held in the courtyard with the bodies of the dead displayed on the bridge (activities not at all in keeping with our concepts of what Church business should be all about, but unfortunately, not the only example).

Who would suspect such a gruesome past when pondering the bridge today? Gracious and beautiful, the design is attributed to Gian Lorenzo Bernini.*** On each of its ten piers stand sculptures of angels holding instruments associated with Christ’s passion: a column, whips, the crown of thorns, the veil of Veronica, garments and dice, nails, a cross, a plaque with the superscription I.N.R.I. (“Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum,” Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews), a sponge, and a lance.

Surely, the most dramatic approach to Castel Sant’Angelo is by this bridge. Alas, Mr. Penfire and I approached from the unscenic route that brought us to the Castel’s entrance from the restaurant in the Borgo district where we had eaten our post-Vatican-tour lunch. Before we went inside, a staffer pointed out to us that the “real” entrance was not at ground level, but one story up—less accessible to invaders.

After paying our 14 Euro admission and renting just one audio guide (Mr. P declined), we found ourselves on a stone ramp that spiraled up…and up… and up. After walking all morning, Mr. Penfire was none too pleased with me for dragging him to yet another site that required endless trudging, well actually: climbing. We passed through what’s left of the mosaic-floored chamber where ashes of Emperors had once been stored, went up various staircases and through several chambers, some lavish, some not.

As we made our way up, we found things interesting but not overwhelmingly so. The pleasing surprises occurred each time we came upon openings to the loggia, where sunshine and expansive views were a delightful relief from the dark interior spaces. On one of these loggias was a café. But we were not to be distracted . Our goal was the rooftop. In fact, the reason to come here is not for the exhibits, but to experience the feel of this massive ancient structure and especially to enjoy panoramic views of Rome from its rooftop terrace.

Once there, we were glad we had made the effort. For laid out before us was the entire city. Beyond the tree-lined Tiber, the wide flat dome of the Pantheon seemed surprisingly near. Arrayed on from there, an expanse of domes and rooftops, most distinctive being the now familiar wedding cake shape of Monument Vittorio Emmanuel with its two square towers with twin chariots on top! The backdrop, a haze of blue mountains. To our left a mass of bright white buildings (the Law Courts), beyond them the dark green of Borghese gardens. Directly below us, the Tiber. Looking down on the Ponte D’Angelo then straight on to the horizon, the skyscrapers of Eur. These faraway high rises mark Rome’s residential and business district, located well away from the city centre, where, by tradition, no building rises taller than the dome of Saint Peter’s. And there it stood off to our right. Straight down the Via della Conciliazione, the Basilica looked close enough to reach out and touch.

These views are for sure the best reason to clamber through the dark ramps and stairways of Castel Sant’Angelo. There are tours available to the prison and the elevated Passeto, passageway (escape hatch?) from the Vatican, but these did not interest us, and would have required advance planning.

We could have ventured farther and down a few levels and along the parapets to the four bastions, named for the Evangelists: St. John’s, St. Matthew’s, St. Mark’s, and St. Luke’s (which houses the entrance to the Passeto). But Mr. Penfire asserted firmly that we had walked far enough. Besides, the most thrilling site he had discerned from the terrace was the corner where we had been dropped off that morning. From the bus stop, across the River and just a couple of blocks away, we would be able to catch the bus back to our hotel. The time had come to call it a day.

*As mentioned earlier, Hadrian himself, of course built nothing, not the Pantheon, not the wall that separates England and Scotland; however, because these were all built by Roman engineers (and probably slave laborers) during his reign, he gets the credit!
** The prison of Castel Sant’Angelo was the setting for Puccini’s opera Tosca.
***On this, our third day in Rome, despite seeing his Baldachin, The Throne of Saint Peter and the spectacular Piazza, and the lovely Ponte Sant’Angelo, I still did not appreciate the genius of Gian Lorenzo Bernini. That would change the next day.