Castle of the Holy Angel

Castel Sant’Angelo

What was once built to be the mausoleum of Roman Emperor Hadrian, and was at the time the tallest building in Rome, is today known as the Castel Sant’Angelo, or Castle of the Holy Angel.

Built between 134-130 CE to serve as a resting place for Emperor Hadrian and his family, it was part of a project that included the Ponte Sant’Angelo, back then known as the Pons Aelius.

Hadrian’s ashes were placed in the building after his death in 138, alongside those of his wife, Sabina, and those of his first adopted son, Lucius Aelius. The remains of subsequent emperors were also laid to rest here, with the last being Caracalla in 217.

Archangel Michael by Rafaello da Montelupo

The building was later used by the popes as a fortress and castle, and today it is a museum. Whatever treasures were once kept within its walls during Roman times have been lost, and the ashes it once held were scattered by Visigoth looters during the sacking of Rome in 410.

Its present name comes from a legend that tells of the Archangel Michael appearing above the mausoleum and sheathing his sword to signal the end of the plague in 590. There are variations to this tale (though they all include Michael), and one has Pope Gregory I destroying centers of pagan worship in the city in order to appease God and drive out the plague ravaging it.

The Lady and the Unicorn by Luca Longhi
The Feast of the Gods by Giovanni Bellini

Beginning in the 14th century, the building was turned into a castle, and Pope Nicholas III connected it to the Basilica di San Pietro with the Passetto di Borgo, a covered, fortified corridor. It also came to be used as a prison, and some of its inmates included the philosopher Giordano Bruno, the goldsmith and sculptor Benvenuto Cellini, and the occultist Cagliostro. The structure was restored between 1901-1906, and inaugurated at the end of that year by King Vittorio Emanuele III as a museum.

The castle has terraces on two levels offering views over the city of Rome and The Vatican. The first is part of a café and restaurant, with tables placed by small openings overlooking the Tiber.

The second terrace sits at the very tippy top of the building. As a notorious hater of stairs and hills of every kind, allow me to say that every step climbed to reach this view is worth it a thousand times over.

Sala Paolina by Perino del Vaga
Ponte Sant’Angelo

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