The Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome (now a museum) is one of the most imposing buildings to survive from antiquity. It was originally a mausoleum, begun by Hadrian (A.D. 117-138) in the closing years of his reign to provide a last resting-place for himself and his successors, and completed by Septimus Severus (A.D. 193). When Rome was endangered by Germanic raiders from the north and was surrounded by Aurelius with a new circuit of walls the mausoleum, strategically situated, was incorporated in the defenses and became the strongest fortress in Rome.
Lungotevere Castello 50, I-00186 Rome, Italy
Transit: Bus: 280, 808, 46b, 41, 46, 881, 98, 62, 110.
The original name of the structure (Hadrianeum) was changed to Castel Sant'Angelo after a vision vouchsafed to Pope Gregory the Great in 590 when he saw an angel hovering over the mausoleum and sheathing his sword, heralding the end of the plague which was then raging in Rome. Hence the figure of an angel which now crowns the monument (by Piet van Verschaffelt, 1753).
In 1277 Pope Nicholas III linked the castle with the Vatican Palace by building a wall along which ran a covered passage known as the passetto. Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope whose adventurous policy of conquest made adequate protection against attack very necessary, fortified the passage and strengthened the castle by building four corner bastions. In times of danger the Popes were able to take refuge in the Castel Sant'Angelo, as did Gregory VII (1084) when threatened by the German king Henry IV, Clement VII during the attack on Rome by the Emperor Charles V (1527, sack of Rome) and Pius VII when in danger of capture by Napoleon's forces. Celebrated prisoners were confined in the castle, and executions took place on its walls. For a time it housed the Papal treasury and secret archives. The Mausoleum of Hadrian consisted of a circular structure 64m/210ft in diameter and 20m/65ft high standing on a square base (84m/275ft each way, 15m/50ft high). Around the top of the walls, built of dressed travertine and tufa, were set a series of statues, and on the highest point was a bronze quadriga (four- horse chariot). This cylindrical structure with its simple geometrical forms and massive walls, within which were the tomb chambers of the Imperial family, formed the core of the Papal stronghold.
In the course of 1,500 years the building was altered by successive Popes according to their particular needs (whether for defense against attack or for purposes of display, with sumptuous decoration). From 1870 until 1901 the Castel Sant'Angelo served as both barracks and prison, then it was renovated and furnished as a museum. On view in 58 rooms, some decorated with fine murals, are an interesting collection of weaponry, models of the history of the building of the fortress, several chapels and a treasury. From the upper platform there are magnificent views.