The Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel) was an attraction I knew nothing about prior to visiting Rome, even though it’s a pretty big deal. After having spent the morning touring the Roman Forum, a friend of mine had suggested heading back over to Citta Vaticana (Vatican City) and visiting the Castel. Although I had researched the city’s principal sights, this was one I seemed to have missed, although looking back on my somewhat disappointing visit to the Eternal City, this was definitely a highlight.
Castel is a place name meaning castle, although the Castel Sant’Angelo is more of a fortress in reality. Its name originates from the vision that Pope Gregory the Great had of the Archangel Michael on this site. It began functioning in AD 139 as Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum although since then it has served many other roles, most notably as a residence of the popes in times of unrest. It’s also functioned as a medieval citadel and prison as well as being part of Emperor Aurelian’s city wall.
What I found most fascinating and to a degree even incredible about the Castel Sant’Angelo was that it is accessible from the Vatican. As a means of protecting the pope, in 1277 an escape route was created between the Vatican Palace and the Castel (known as the Vatican Corridor). The pentagonal ramparts built around the castle during the 17th century improved its defenses in times of siege. While I know that all cities, especially those as ancient as Rome, have secrets buried deep beneath their streets, here was one that was a secret no more and yet still as fascinating as ever to modern day visitors.
There is no shortage of incredible photo opportunities in Rome, yet one of my favorite pictures that I took is of the view offered from the Castel with the immense and overwhelming Vatican City in the background. This same terrace is also the scene of the last act of Puccini’s Tosca, my favorite opera. This, thanks to an episode of my favorite soap opera that played an aria from it. (In the opera, Tosca, the protagonist leaps to her death from the castel’s ramparts-it’s not an uplifting ending needless to say.)
Religious art is naturally a big deal in Italy, especially in sculpture. While Florence certainly had an impressive array of sculptural pieces in the Piazza della Signoria, did they really compare with that of the Bronze Angel which is fixed atop the Castel looking down on all of Rome from its immense height? It dates from the 18th century and was created by the Flemish sculptor Pieter Verschaffelt. I visited during the day so I can’t comment from in person experience, but from the photos I have seen of the Castel at night, the sight of the angel sculpture against the night sky is stunning.
There are many historical attractions that I visit where I simply can’t feel, can’t envision a connection to the past. I know that they happened, that they were real, but I just can’t imagine them outside of a history book. However, the Castel was a place where I could imagine the pope being hurriedly led away from the darkness of Vatican Palace to the safety of the Castel when the papacy was threatended. Where soliders fought till death against intruders wanting to breach the castel’s walls. It was just that kind of a place, one that, at least to me, you don’t encounter very often.