An Evening at Castel Sant’Angelo

In the last act of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Tosca, my second favorite opera, the heroine leaps to her death from the ramparts of Castel Sant’Angelo, where her lover had been imprisoned and killed. I was on the terrace at the top of Castel Sant’Angelo last Saturday evening, and I can tell you that it’s a long way to the bottom. I don’t recommend jumping, although it makes for a dramatic ending to the opera, not to mention Tosca!

Looking up into the papal apartments from the entrance to Castel Sant’Angelo

We’ve passed massive, hulking Castel Sant’Angelo many, many times, but we had never visited it until last weekend. During the summer, Castel Sant’Angelo offers special tours and concerts every evening. This tour ranks among our favorite things that we have done in Rome. Even though the day was overcast and gloomy, Saturday evening was clear, and the moon was nearly full and so bright.

In 123 AD, Emperor Hadrian began building Castel Sant’Angelo as his family’s mausoleum. By the time the mausoleum was finished in 139, Hadrian was dead (in 138). Hadrian died of heart failure, probably from overbuilding (the Pantheon, Hadrian’s Villa, and my favorite of the Tevere’s bridges, Ponte Sant’Angelo, which links Castel Sant’Angelo to the other side of the river).

The Passetto is at the left, but you can’t see it in this photo.

In the 13th century the papacy acquired the structure and, over time, enlarged and fortified it, using it simultaneously as a residence, a prison, and a treasury and connecting it to the Swiss Guard’s station in St. Peter’s by a high, covered, fortified walkway, the Passetto di Borgo. From the street the Passetto looks like a long wall, and you’d never suspect that it was built to hold a passageway. The Passetto is about a half mile long, and the popes used it to travel back and forth in secret and to escape from danger, as Clement VII did during the sack of Rome in 1527. The Passetto has two levels: a hidden passageway on the bottom for the popes and an open passageway on top for the guards. The Passetto is not usually open to the public, but on our tour we walked about halfway to St. Peter’s on the top level. What a treat! I felt very sneaky! I couldn’t take good photographs in the dark, but you can see some photos of the Passetto here.

St. Peter’s from the top of Castel Sant’Angelo

When we first arrived at the castle, we hightailed it to the restaurant and cafe near the top and dined sumptuously (!) on half a sandwich and a glass of prosecco. We’d had a big lunch and weren’t very hungry. The view of St. Peter’s was sublime, and I could probably have sat there drinking prosecco all night; however, we had a tour to catch and a concert to watch, so we ate and ran.

Our tour of Castel Sant’Angelo, which is now a museum, lasted about 45 minutes. In addition to the Passetto, we got to see other areas not usually open to the public, including the cramped, dark prison cells; the food storage areas; and Clement VII’s gorgeous bathroom, one of the handful of Renaissance bathrooms still existing today.  We then watched the end of the evening’s concert and visited the ornate papal apartments on the top floor. The rooms there are covered with frescoes and works of art, and the views of Rome are glorious. Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed.

Rive Gauche bar with Ponte Sant’Angelo in the background

We left the museum at 11:30 or so and took the stairs down to one of the bars set up along the river for the summer Lungo il Tevere. The Rive Gauche featured white leather couches, which were so comfortable that we stayed for about an hour. I’m glad we stopped because last weekend was the end of the Lungo il Tevere. When I walked up the river this morning, workers were dismantling the tents. Darn!

Thank you, Hadrian, for a wonderful evening. Your mausoleum rocks!


Archangel Michael stands atop Castel Sant’Angelo. He is sheathing his sword as a sign of the end of the plague in 590 AD.

Enormous, heavy door, with a smaller door inside

Ceiling over the stairs in the interior of the castle

Embedded storage jars in the kitchen area

Clement VII’s bathroom

This entry was posted in Rome attractions and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s