J.M. Pasquesi is a Rome expert for radio shows such as Rick Steves’ Radio, a contributing editor to a variety of guides and magazines, and is the author of award-winning Rome with Kids: an Insider’s Guide. She has generously contributed this guest post about Castel Sant’Angelo, which she maintains is…
Rome’s coolest museum!
Action, adventure, prisoners, secret passages, sumptuous palace rooms, and treasure galore! Bring a kid, or let this emperor’s tomb turned papal palace, fortress, and even prison bring out the kid in you. No other museum is as fun to visit as maze-like Castel Sant’Angelo. You’ll love scrambling up its ramps and ramparts discovering weapons, artillery, gorgeous frescos, papal bedchambers, a Michelangelo-designed chapel, and glorious terraces with commanding views of St. Peter’s and all Rome. If that’s not enough allure, its covered passage (passetto), a battlement wall connecting it to nearby St. Peter’s, is featured in the blockbuster film, Angels and Demons.
What makes Castel Sant’Angelo so cool? It has been around a long time, since 135 AD, and its formidable frame played a major role in many of Rome’s most fascinating periods. It all started when emperor Hadrian found himself without a proper resting place. Previously, Augustus (Rome’s first emperor) built a large mausoleum that accommodated most Imperial remains. When space ran out, Trajan, Hadrian’s adoptive father, built a private chamber under his eponymous column, but with no space to spare.
Just across the river from Augustus’ mausoleum, Hadrian built his enormous tomb and a bridge in front of it, for direct access. This bridge, now completely reconstructed and called Ponte Sant’Angelo, is one of Rome’s most famous, thanks to the great Baroque master, Bernini, who designed its glorious angels. Inside, the Imperial remains are long gone, but it once held some six emperors and their family members, ending with Caracalla (217AD).
Today, only the core of that first, splendid monument is intact, but models near the ticket office show how it may have looked, clad with fine marble and decorated with stately trees and statuary. Though most ancient monuments fell into decay or disappeared altogether, this fortress of a building always proved valuable. The last big transformation came with its adoption by the Church, which added fine rooms and frescoes fit for the Papal refuge it became.
The varied history of this castle makes touring it an adventurous treasure hunt. It is a singular experience, to follow its narrow passageways and explore its delightful terraces and dark cells. Surprises are everywhere-from lavish grand halls to teensy papal bathrooms. You can discover hidden courtyards, piles of medieval cannonball, and delicate Renaissance art. Proceed with care! You’ll have to climb up its ramp with hatches overhead, once used to drop hot oil in surprise attacks!
Indeed, the role of fortress was recurring. The formidable frame served to keep enemies out and prisoners in, but the Church really kicked it up a notch when, in 1277AD, it built a battlement wall connecting it to the Vatican, thereby creating an escape route for the Pope when under siege. The Medici pope, Clement VII, put it to the task during the Sack of Rome (1527).
Of the many stories to tell while touring the splendid rooms of this ancient hulk, I like the legend of how it got its name, Castle of the Angel. In 590AD, St. Gregory the Great was praying for an end to Rome’s great plague when he saw an angel sheathing its sword above the castle. He was convinced it was archangel St. Michael defeating the dread disease. The plague vanished, and the name stuck.
A HANDFUL OF HIGHLIGHTS:
- Three models near the ticket booth, depicting the monument at different stages.
- The tiny museum of Arms and Armor, with artifacts dating from the Stone Age to present, mostly found in and around the site.
- The papal rooms, with a Michelangelo-designed chapel; a Bramante-designed loggia; and frescoes by the likes of Giulio Romano and others from the Raphael school. [Editor’s note: this is one of the most important examples of Roman Mannerist painting.]
- The angel statue that originally topped the building, by Raffaello da Montelupo, is now protected in an interior courtyard.
- The apartments of Paul III Farnese, with stuccoes by Sermoneta and Baccio da Montelupo and a charming trompe l’oeil fresco of a servant entering the room.
- The Cupid and Psyche room, with its frescoes and gilt ceiling, complete with 16th century bed and clavichord.
- The circular treasury room of Paul III, with walnut built-ins and large chests that once held Vatican treasury. It is from this room that you can continue up staircases to the tip-top of the castle roof, for the most amazing 360-degree views over Rome and a look at the angel up-close.
Finally, take a break! Grab a snack and a vista from the rooftop terrace, or relax in the castle’s moat, now a lovely park complete with playground equipment and benches.
For more on Castel Sant’Angelo and how to tour Rome, check out J.M. Pasquesi’s award-winning guide, Rome with Kids: an insider’s guide, or visit www.RomeWithKids.com. If you’re already in Rome and want to buy her book, it is available at the following locations: Almost Corner Bookshop, Lion Book store, Anglo-American Book store, and from the front desk of both the Albergo del Senato and the Hotel Raffaello.
Open Tuesday through Friday, 9-19. Tickets cost 5 euro.