Honors in Rome - Summer 2007
Since the 1930s, it has been featuring galleries of past military weapons and 16th Century artwork. But the Castel Sant Angelo hardly began as a museum (pictured on the left). Rather the building was originally a mausoleum, but evolved to serve as a castle, a prison, and a papal residence through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. It has been transformed over the years into the formidable structure we now gaze upon. Within its walls is a layered history.
Publius Aelius Hadrianus (Hadrian) constructed his mausoleum in Ager Vaticanus (later expanded and known as the Borgo before its incorporation into Rome) in 135, which was later completed by son Antoninus Pius in 139. This served as an imperial tomb for succeeding emperors until Emperor Septimus Severus (who reigned from 193 to 211). But its function as a mausoleum only lasted for a century.
The mausoleum was incorporated into Emperor Aurelian’s wall in 271, which enclosed the city of Rome: all seven of its hills, the Campus Martius, and Trastevere. From then on, possession of this fortress was highly contested. For the following centuries, Romans defended against foreign invaders at these walls. In 410 it was sacked by the Goths of Alaric, who carried off the original décor and imperial urns. Under the reign of Thedoric (474 to 526), after its slow transformation into a castle, the edifice was used as a prison, temporarily becoming known as Carceri Theodorici. In 537, statues were broken down to use as projectiles in battle against Goths of Vittige. This became a powerful symbol as the citadel of Rome. It was finally renamed during the Middle Ages, when, according to legend, Saint Gregory the Great crossed to Tiber in 590 to gaze upon an angel sheathing its sword (later commemorated by the statue seen on the left), announcing the end of the plague. Thus, Hadrian’s mausoleum came to be – in both function and name – the Castel Sant Angelo (Castle Saint Angelo).
Fighting over its possession did not cease for the next millennium. In the 12th century, popes would join in the struggle popes and antipopes contested for the castle during the Great Schism. Several popes and their papal families resided within the castle, including the lavish Farnese family during the reign of Pope Paul III. Several popes added installments to reconstruct and refortify the castle. Pope Urban VIII even provided castle with bronze cannon taken from the Pantheon portico. At the same time, invading forces were still attacking. In 1378 the castle was actually destroyed by citizens of Rome, who were discontent with foreign domination. Later, in 1527, it was invaded by the troops of Charles V during the infamous Sack of Rome. From 1849 to 1870, the castle came under French occupation.
Function and Form of the Castle
The structure of the castle is as layered as its history (the floor plan is seen on the left to give a general sense of the many layers in the building). While the blueprint of Hadrian’s mausoleum is traceable, the castle has been continuously destroyed and pillaged, reconstructed and redecorated, until its present state. For this reason, the castle houses numerous small chambers that served as prison cells, underground oil stores, and various silos in addition to lavish papal apartments. In general, the castle is an expanded version of the mausoleum, with new levels and rooms climbing up from the level of the imperial tomb.
Traces of the Mausoleum
The original mausoleum was approached by a bridge, now known as Ponte Sant Angelo (also known as Ponte Adrianus or Ponte Aelius). There used to be gilded bronze peacocks outside, which were an allusion to the Sun God because their tails were associated with the eyes of the sun. These are now in the Musei Vaticani. This reference to the Sun God will be seen in many features of the mausoleum. The ten angels that adorn the two sides of the bridge were a later addition, designed in 1688 by Gian Lorenzo Berbini (two of the originals were moved to Sant Andrea delle Fratte). Statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul at ends were situated by Clement VII in 1534.
The mausoleum itself had an 89-meter square base composed of a double wall of marble-faced travertine and brick (left). Its façade was decorated with friezes of garlands and lion heads, pilasters, marble revetment, and ashlars. It supports a 69-meter round tower, constructed from peperino and travertine overlaid with marble. (Peperino is composed of basalt and limestone typically used for fountain basins, which is a fitting choice for the castle due to its proximity to the Tiber which is often subject to flooding.) Above was a spread of cypress trees. In the center the earthen tumulus stood an altar bearing Hadrian on a horse-drawn chariot, linking him to the Apollo, the Sun God. Numerous statues would have adorned the mausoleum inside and out, but many were destroyed in battle or taken to the Musei Vaticani.
An Inscription by Hadrian’s son Antonius Pius, who finished the mausoleum for his parents, is carved above the original entrance. It reads:
IMP. CAESARI DIVI TRAIANI PARTHICI FILIO DIVI NERVAE NEPOTI TRAIANO ADRIANO AUGUSTO PONT. MAX. TRIB. POT. XXII IMP. II COS. III P.P. ET DIVAE SABINE IMP. CAESAR T. AELIUS HADRIANUS ANTONINUS AUG. PIUS PONTIFEX MAX. TRIBUN. POTEST. II COS. II DESIGN. II P.P. PAREMTIBUS SUIS
Imperator Caesar Titus Aelius Hadrian Antoninus Augustus Pius, Pontifex Maximus, twice holder of tribunician power, twice consul, three times consul designate, Father of his Country,[dedicates this] to his parents, Imperator Caesar Hadrian Augustus, son of Divine Trahan Parthicus, grandson of Divine Nerva, Pontifex Maximus, with tribunician power twenty-two times, imperator twice, consul three times, Father of his Country, and the Divine Sabina.
The previous entrance to the mausoleum is roughly 3 meters below the current entrance, due to the rise of the riverbed and the structural transformations over the years. At the entrance is a small niche that previously housed a statue of Emperor Hadrian.
The castle lost its splendor until the 12th century. The only remaining feel of a mausoleum is the 125-meter spiraling ramp leading to the sepulchral cella (the imperial tomb, ramp seen on left image). There are four tall ventilators leading past the earthen tumulus, which drained into a system running under the ramp. Originally, the walls had a marble façade and the ground was paved with a black-and-white mosaic. Vaults were decorated with stuccoes and frescoes. As visitors travel upward, rising about 12 meters on this annular corridor and circling about the tomb in an anticlockwise fashion, Hadrian’s purpose is revisited. This guided path is a feature of many tombs, such as the mausoleum of Augustus (which served as a model for Hadrian’s mausoleum) and Trajan’s column. However, the concept of a ramp leading into a cella is a novel feature.
The circumambulation served as a metaphor for the cosmos in that visitors circulate Hadrian’s ashes just as planets orbit the Sun, another link between Hadrian and the Sun. The ties that Hadrian made between himself and the Sun imbued his reign with divinity. This “cosmic kingship” was a theme begun under Augustus that invested divine power in the ruler. This concept allowed Hadrian to control the passing of power to his successors, for each subsequent emperor was imbued with the divine legitimacy of the previous ruler. It was also believed that the circumambulation harnesses the regenerative abilities of the universe, so that each passing would symbolically revive his soul. This was a prominent belief at the time, and because Romans believed that immortality was achieved through the imprint of memory in future generations, the circular form was crucial to the mausoleum, and to Hadrian’s purpose.
Along the ramp, lighting is limited until the imperial tomb is reached – a square room, 8-meters in length. There are windows on two walls that brighten the square room, shining on the imperial urns that would have stood in the center. Only the travertine blocks of the walls and some fragments of marble decoration have survived. The porphyry of Hadrian was taken for use in Innocent II’s tomb in the Lateran, and later destroyed in the fire of 1360.
The Medieval Features of the Castle
After its gradual transformation into a fortress, this spiraling ramp was an important feature for rapid return to safety. Riders on horseback used the spiraling ramp and the small wooden bridge that sits across the imperial tomb to smoothly travel within the protection of the castle walls. There was a drawbridge that led to a guard room at the foot of a set of stairs (Staircase of Alexander VI), which crossed the imperial tomb with a drawbridge, later replaced with a bridge designed by Valadier in 1822.
During these battling years the castle was fortified with ramparts and four bastions (named Saint Mark, Saint Matthew, Saint John, and Saint Luke). These were begun by Nicholas V in the mid 1400s, and later continued by Antonio da Sangallo il Vecchio under Alexander VI. An outer ward with a defensive ditch was added by Pius IV. A moat also previously encircled the walls during the 15th century. There are still wooden catapults, rusty cannons, and marble cannon balls found in various courtyards and bastion terraces. All these additions were vital to the function of the structure as a castle, especially because Rome would be continuously attacked at the borders.
The majority of the castle still retains its medieval rustic appearance. Aside from the fortification elements, small dimly-lit rooms are ubiquitous around the castle. Most of these were utilized as underground oil stores, grain silos, artillery storage, barracks, and prisons (an oil store is pictured on the right). The prisons, which held military and political prisoners, tend to be secretive and hidden. The Italian government used these rooms as barracks and prisons even in the 19th century. Some of the original vaults were converted into a prison, one of which is tagged to be that of Benvenuto Cellini, a favored artist by the Farnese later imprisoned for the embezzlement of Clement VII’s jewels.
Additions for Papal Residence
The spiral ramp was still important to the castle as a defending fortress, but unnecessary for residential access. When the castle came under papal possession in the 12th century, several reconstructive changes transformed the medieval fortress into a papal residence. The coat-of-arms of various papal families can be found throughout the castle (the Medici crest, the fleurs-de-lis of the Farnese, the Barberini bees, just the name a few). Under Leo X, an elevator – the shaft of which is located in one of the vaults – was created and later restored by Clement XII in the 18th century. While no longer in use today, the elevator was previously used as a convenient access to the papal apartments. The earthen tumulus which originally crowned the castle was excavated for the construction of the papal apartments, which in turn obstructed the vaults above the ramp.
From the tomb, the previous staircase led to the right, into the Courtyard of Alexander VI, a space that served as a theatre used by Leo X and Pius VII. However, Pope Paul III commissioned Antonio da Sangallo the Younger (among numerous other projects) to close this path and force the staircase to the left, leading up into the Courtyard of the Angel (left). This courtyard holds a marble statue of an angel sheathing its sword – the Archangel Michael – a pillar of protection whose image is ubiquitous throughout the castle. The original angel, believed to have been carved by a follower of Guglielmo della Porta, stood on the summit of the Castle during the time of Pope Paul III. It was later removed to the courtyard and replaced with later designs of angel statues. The current angel that stands against the left wall of the courtyard was designed by Raffaello da Montelupo, which is visible from one of the windows from the tomb below. The current angel on the summit of the castle is one designed by Verschaffelt in the 18th century, erected as a tribute to the vision of Gregory the Great.
It is also speculated that the Chapel of Leo X, which stands in the southeast corner of this level, may have been erected in the same place as the original chapel erected in the 8th century in honor of the appearance of Gregory’s angelic vision. Depictions of Madonna and Child (a relief by Raffaello da Montelupo and a painting by Tadeo Gaddi) lined the altar and walls of the chapel.
Along the outer perimeter of the courtyards are papal apartments, oil stores, and historical prisons. The Hall of Justice, which sits directly above the imperial tomb, adjoins the two semicircular courtyards (Courtyard of Alexander VI and Courtyard of the Angel). This room was previously used as a tribunal, consistent with the iconography on the walls: there is a large fresco of the Saint Justice by Domenico Zaga, painted in the mid 1500s. The Castel Sant Angelo became a safe house for many important political and judicial figures in the 16th and 17th centuries. Adjoining the Hall of Justice is the Salle d’Apollo (right), an apartment room of Pope Paul III, lavishly decorated with frescoes of the Olympic deities.
A stone staircase leads from the courtyards up into the loggia of various popes, which were constructed to serve as residence for the papal family members. The north loggia, decorated with frescoes, stuccoes, and Mannerist grotesques by Antonio da Sangallo the Younger in the 1543, was constructed under Paul III. The south loggia, designed by Giuliano da Sangallo under Julius II, faces the river. The Galleria of Pius IV, a semicircular terrace, overlooks the city and the bastion terraces holding various cannons and artillery.
Also viewed from the terrace is the long covered passageway that links the castle to the Vatican. Constructed in 1277 by Nicholas III, and reconstructed and used by Alexander VI in 1494, this walkway was used by various popes as an escape route from the Vatican to the refuge that is the Castel Sant Angelo. Gregory VII fled for its protecting walls in 1084; Cola di Rienzo did the same in 1347. Clement VII, plus 1000 followers (of which 13 cardinals, 18 bishops), also used the path in 1527 to flee from the troops of Charles V.
Another set of stone steps lead to the Farnese apartments – the room of Paul III (Sala Paolina). Paul III was born Alessandro Farnese, and resided as pope from 1534 to 1549. Raised high in the castle and accessed through climbing numerous small staircases and narrow hallways, the pope was well protected by layers of guarded paths. The room, decorated from 1542 to 1549 by various artists such as Antonio da Sangallo the Elder, Pierin del Vaga, Marco da Siena, and Pellegrino Tibaldi. An inscription runs around the ceiling of the room, which reads:
QVAE OLIM INTRA HANC ARCEM COLLAPSA IMPEDITA FOEDATA ERANTEA NVNC A PAVLO TERTIO PONTIFICE MAXIMO ADSOLIDAM FIRMITATEM COMMODAM VTILITATEM
All the things on the castle that had long fallen into ruin, were out of use or had been destroyed, could now be seen erected again, rearranged properly and embellished by Pope Paul III, as Supreme Pontifex, solid and stable for comfortable use in a context of refined beauty.
This is reminiscent of the reconstruction programs discussed in many of the other sites, how later rulers and families incorporate ruins into their own palaces, layering their own history over the past.
The artwork in the room (a portion is seen in the image on the right) depicts the figures involved in the history of the castle, including an image of Hadrian – reminding viewers of the founder of the original mausoleum. Again, an image of the Archangel Michael stands on the adjacent wall. A man seen going through a false door has been speculated to be Pellegrino Tibaldi, a lawyer who defended Beatrice Cenci during the infamous trial of patricide of the Cenci family, but this was likely painted years before the event. Another theory supposes this figure to be Fulvio Orsini, a historian at the court of Paul III.
Additional iconography of the room tells tales of conquest in the history of Rome, including the conquests of Alexander the Great and Homer’s Illiad. The images on the walls are interwoven with fleurs-de-lis, the symbol of the Farnese family also present on their coat-of-arms. These remind us of the military beginnings of the Farnese, and also boast the pope as a Roman leader in his city with great military strength. Paul III spent great efforts identifying himself as Roman tas a departure from previous family images, such as the Spanish Borgias and the Florentine Medici. His political praise is further emphasized by writing on the ceiling vault, which reads Festina Lente, a tribute to the skill of taking action after reflection.
The adjoining room (room of Persus) shows a lot of iconography that suggest its use for the castellan of the Castel Sant Angelo during the time of Paul III, Tiberio Crispo. A frieze of maidens, cupid, and unicorns reveal the liberation of Andromeda when Medusa was slain by the son of Jupiter. The image of unicorns is repeated throughout the room, a symbol for purity and a heraldic symbol for Tiberio Crispo, who likely used this room to hold audience.
The Library and Treasury are joined by a narrow, frescoed passageway from the apartment; this is where Paul III stored his archives. As the papal residence took over most of the castle, the fortress offered not only safety to the popes but also to their property: it preserved pontifical treasure and papal archive documents.
Renovation and Reconstruction
Time and battle have worn the castle in every century – from the splendor of the mausoleum during Hadrian and his successors to the extravagant artwork under various popes of the 16th and 17th centuries. Reconstruction began under Boniface IX in hopes of restoring some of the original appearance. Pope Nicholas V (who presided from 1447 to 1455) commissioned the brick crowning cylindrical nucleus of center that still remains, which was later finished by Alexander VI. Julius II (1503 – 1013) commissioned Sangallo the Younger and Bramante for reconstruction. The Medici pope Leo X embellished the papal apartments and had the elevator constructed. Innocent XIII later restored the apartments of Paul III, preserving and adding his own touches to the room.
The Castel Sant Angelo was symbolically powerful throughout the ages. Not only does it provide a cosmic effect for visitors of Hadrian’s mausoleum, the castle came to stand for both glorious victory and imminent threat, for the struggle to survive and the site for death. It was a sign of rebirth after the Plague (images of the angel) but it was reminiscent of foreign invasion. It was a papal refuge, but was also the site of imprisonment and decapitation. The Cenci family was executed on the Ponte Sant Angelo. I was particularly surprised by the numerous mentions of the castle in literature and biographies of the artists such as Caravaggio and Michaelangelo. For us today it does not hold this representative power as much, but it still stands, beaten down but formidable. The Castel Sant Angelo reminds us of the history of Rome – a series of building, destruction, and rebuilding in a battle for power and wealth.
Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro. Hadrian and the City of Rome. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1987.
Boatwright, Mary Taliaferro . Hadrian and the Cities of the Roman Empire. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000.
Davies, Penelope. Death and the Emperor, Roman Imperial Funerary Monuments from Augustus to Marcus Aurelius. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Foster, Brett and Marcovitz, Hal. Bloom’s Literary Guide to Rome. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2007.
Freeman, Charles. "Hadrian's Hall." History Today 57(2007): 10-11.
Hetherington, Paul. Medieval Rome, a Portrait of the City and its Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 1994.
King, Ross. Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Lavagnino, Emilio. Castel Sant Angelo. Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1950.
Macadam, Alta. The Blue Guide: Rome and environs. London: A & C Black, 1994.
MacDonald, William Lloyd. Hadrian's villa and its legacy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Prose, Francine. Caravaggio, Painter of Miracles. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2005.