Visiting Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, Italy
One of the most recognizable structures in all of Rome has to be the Castel Sant’Angelo. Perched on the banks of the Tiber River, this impressive fortress has withstood the test of time since its construction began in 130 AD. Having served multiple purposes over the centuries, today the building houses the National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo and retraces the history of this Roman landmark.
Most visitors to Rome who are not familiar with the Castel Sant’Angelo view it as a beautiful photo opportunity, but bypass a visit in favor of Rome’s many other historic sites and monuments. I would like to encourage anyone visiting Rome to take the time to tour the Castel Sant’Angelo, as it has a fascinating history and offers one of the finest views of Rome from its rooftop terrace.
A Little History
The Castel Sant’Angleo was constructed between 130-139 AD by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself, his family, and his successors. The structure most likely appeared quite different then, and has been transformed over the centuries to its current state. Following his death in 138 AD, Hadrian’s ashes were placed here, along with those of his wife and his son who died in the same year. For the next 80 years or so, the remains of succeeding emperors were interred here ending with the Roman Emperor Caracalla in 217 AD
By the 5th century the building had been converted into a fortress and was instrumental in defending Rome during the tumultuous Middle Ages. The buildings fortified walls, strategic position along the Tiber River, and close proximity to the Vatican made the castle a convenient refuge in time of need. In 1277 Pope Nicholas III had the castle connected to the Vatican with the now famous corridor called the Passetto di Borgo. This elevated passage was made famous in Dan Brown’s movie, Angels & Demons, and was actually used by Popes in times of danger as an escape route from the Vatican to the safe confines of the fortress.
Castel Sant’Angleo’s past has a sinister side to it as well, having been used as a prison during the middle ages and as recently as the late 19th century. Executions by guillotine and burnings at the stake were the fate of many a prisoner in the castle’s courtyards. It was common practice for prisoners to be starved and tortured during their most unpleasant stay at Castel Sant’Angleo.
Today, the Castel Sant’Angelo is a historic landmark in Rome, and is easily recognized due to its unique shape and the beloved statue of Archangel Saint Michael that sits high above the rooftop terrace. The castle is located quite close to Vatican City and directly across the Ponte Sant’Angleo (Bridge of Castel St. Angelo). The bridge, which is for pedestrian traffic only is one of the most famous in all of Rome, and was built in 239 AD.
The name Castel Sant’Angleo also has an interesting story to it and actually came from a vision that Pope Gregory I had in 590 AD of an angel (Saint Michael) that appeared above the castle and supposedly saved the city from the plague. The statue of Archangel Saint Michael shows him sheathing his sword in a sign that the end of the plague was at hand.
Visiting the Museum
Access to the museum today takes visitors up the 400 foot spiral ramp to the interior of the castle and its six levels. The ramp leads to what is known as the imperial tomb, which is a small square room that would have housed the urns containing the ashes of Emperor Hadrian. The remains of Hadrian and others have long since been lost to looters over the centuries.
There are a number of interesting exhibits for viewing in the castle including a variety of medieval military weapons on display in the courtyards. A number of the castle’s 58 rooms have exhibits showing Renaissance era paintings, sculptures, pottery, and various antique artifacts. Rooms that were once used as the papal apartment are also on display. Most of the artwork in the castle is from the collections of Mario Menotti and Contini Bonacossi whose families donated a number of antique paintings and furnishings to the museum in the early 1900s when the museum was first established (1925).
The castle is a labyrinth of stately halls, frescoed rooms, and numerous courtyards and really gives visitors an in depth look at 2,000 years of Roman history. As you ascend through the castle you will eventually reach the last narrow stairway that will lead you to the sixth level and the rooftop angel terrace. Here you will be greeted with perhaps the finest view of Rome that can be had. Looking down on the rooftops of Rome one can easily identify some of Rome’s most historic landmarks including the Pantheon, the Colosseum, and the National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II. A quick glance to your right gives you a stunning view of St. Peters Basilica and a look behind you gives you an up close look at the statue of Archangel Saint Michael perched atop the castle.
There is a small coffee shop located near the top of the castle for those looking to take a break or grab a quick bite to eat.
Though the castle is only open during daylight hours, I would suggest taking a walk around after the sun goes down. The castle and the bridge are bathed in lights, which makes for a beautiful scene as it reflects off of the waters of the Tiber River. The city of Rome does a wonderful job of illuminating its historical structures and ruins, and a nighttime walk through the historic center of Rome is a must on any visit to the eternal city.
Hours and Admission
The Castel Sant’Angleo Museum is open Tuesdays through Sunday from 9am until 7:30pm. They are closed on Mondays and also on Christmas Day and New Years Day. Full price entry is 10.50 euro with a reduced rate of 7.50 euro for European Union citizens between 18 and 25. Entry is free for EU citizens under age 18 and over age 65, students, and teachers. An audio guide is also available for a small fee and guided tours are available for groups of up to 25 people.
Getting to Castel Sant’Angleo is easy with Metro Line A and many bus lines stopping here or you can simply walk depending on where you are staying in Rome.
Enjoy your visit to Rome and the Castel Sant’Angelo, certainly one of the eternal cities most grand and historic sites.
Ciao for now.
Questions & Answers
© 2013 Bill De Giulio