A Brief History of the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome
What is the Castel Sant’Angelo?
Castel Sant’Angelo, also known as The Mausoleum of Hadrian, is a papal fortress, residence, and prison originally built by Emperors Hadrian and Antoninus Pius in the 2nd century AD as the burial place for the imperial family.
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Castel Sant’Angelo History
The history of Rome is a history of reuse, and no better example remains than Castel Sant’Angelo. Famed for being the mausoleum of the Emperor Hadrian, the monument has a rich and unique history, used over the past two millennia as a papal fortress, residence and prison. The building’s large cylindrical structure rises high above Rome’s cityscape, offering some of the most breath-taking views of the city.
Commissioned by Hadrian in the AD 120s, and subsequently finished by his successor Antoninus Pius, Castel Sant’Angelo was designed to be the burial place for the imperial family. Emperors and their family members continued to be interred here long after the death of Hadrian, with the last recorded burial that of Emperor Caracalla in AD 217.
The original structure was a striking monument, covered with white marble, encircled by statues and topped with cypress trees. At the cylinder’s centre stood a towering statue of Hadrian driving a quadriga, or four-horse chariot, the classical emblem of triumph dating back to the ancient Olympic games. During the 3rd century, however, the mausoleum was used as a temporary fortification, at which point much of the tomb’s contents and decorations were unfortunately lost. The urns and ashes were looted during a sack of Rome in the 5th century and the original statues were launched from the ramparts when the city was being besieged by the Goths in the century after.
The building takes its name from a story during this dark period, well before the Renaissance and cultural rebirth of the city. Towards the end of the 6th century, Rome suffered a dreadful plague that stormed through the city, grimly clogging the streets with bodies of the dead. In response, Pope Gregory, leading a procession to pray for the wrath of god to subside, caught sight of a divine apparition atop the long disused mausoleum.
There stood the archangel Michael in his shining glory brandishing a sword, which he then sheathed, marking the end of the pestilential destruction. In fact, if you look at the peak of the structure, you’ll see a commemorative bronze statue from the 18th century – standing in place of an earlier marble version – depicting the archangel sheathing his sword, as a constant reminder of God’s mercy.
Due to its steep walls and significant position along the River Tiber, the mausoleum also served as a natural defensive location. Successive popes gradually converted the tomb into a permanent military fortress around the 15th century, connecting the castle with St Peter’s Basilica via a secret fortified corridor, the Passetto di Borgo. On at least two occasions the passageway provided sanctuary to fleeing popes. Alexander VI crossed it in 1494 when the King of France invaded the city, whilst Clement VII found refuge during the sack of Rome in 1527, when the Holy Roman Emperor managed to slaughter almost the entire Swiss Guard, the Vatican’s military corps, on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica.
Decommissioned at the beginning of the 20th century, Castel Sant’Angelo now serves as a museum, home to various military artefacts and perfectly preserved frescoes from the height of the Renaissance.
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