The Castel Sant’Angelo is a massive fortress in Parco Adriano, Rome. It was built as a mausoleum for the pagan Roman Emperor Hadrian and his wife.
That doesn’t make it the sort of the thing that comes up in every list of pilgrimage destinations, but…
This particular bridge-guarding fortress with barbican also had a very interesting connection with the Catholic church—literally.
Originally called the Hadrianeum, the Castel Sant'Angelo was built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian and his wife, with the main burial chamber reached by going up a huge winding ramp. A few later emperors and their wives were also interred there, including the great Marcus Aurelius.
Gradually, it came to be valued more for its defensive properties and strategic position at a bend in the Tiber River.
Then in the 6th century AD, sometime after the fall of Rome, a great plague fell upon the city. As Pope Gregory the Great made procession through the city in prayer for mercy on those who still lived, he had a vision.
In this vision, an angel appeared above the castle and sheathed his sword. This was believed to indicate an end to the plague, and the castle received a new name to commemorate it: the Castel Sant’Angelo (Castle of the Holy Angel).
A marble statue of the archangel Michael was placed on the top of the castle, later to be replaced by the current bronze version from the 1700s. It’s there to remind people that even when things look their worst, God is still with us.
Yet its transformation to a castle used by the papacy didn’t happen all at once. Pope Alexander VI completed its fortifications, and Pope Leo X commissioned much of its interior, including a courtyard façade designed by Michelangelo. Pope Paul III added to the luxury. During the Renaissance, a chapel was built and additional artwork added.
Castel Sant'Angelo also acquired usage as a prison for all kinds of people—nobles, clerics, scientists, and artists. Some, such as the artist Caravaggio, lived to tell the tale. Others were executed, in the courtyard or in a public execution in front of the castle, including the Dominican friar Giordano Bruno.
Pope Urban V was given the keys to Castel Sant’Angelo when the Holy See returned to Rome in 1367. This cemented the castle’s future as a papal stronghold.
In the 9th century, Pope Leo IV had a tunnel built that linked St Peter’s Basilica to Castel Sant'Angelo. This tunnel, the Passetto di Borgo, is 800 meters (2,600 feet) long. It allowed the pope to reach the safety of the fortified castle even at the direst of times.
Pope Alexander VI used it to escape when Charles VIII of France invaded in 1494. He used his interlude there to turn his apartments into a party place, complete with art from some of the best artists of his time.
Alexander’s apartments were right over the prisons. Prisoners were sometimes fed and sometimes not. Imagine starving while the music of papal parties sounded from the apartments above, and the dangers of mixing worldly and spiritual power becomes much more obvious.
There’s much to admire in the castle’s appearance and art, yet just as much for the visitor to ponder on what a man of God’s use of power should look like—or, indeed, our own.
Then during the infamous Sack of Rome in 1527, Pope Clement VII escaped through the tunnel safely while the Holy(?) Roman Emperor’s troops decimated the pope’s Swiss guards. Clement was able to remain protected in the Castel Sant’Angelo for months.
In truth, the Castel Sant’Angelo served the popes well. But for me, a good part of what made this site a place of pilgrimage was its history, the story of those held here, and its nod to medieval imagination: the tunnel.
In a world filled with injustice, the castle and its gardens strike me as a proper place to meditate on that & the example Jesus showed for how to live and lead.
21 Catholic missions, built in the wilderness of the American Pacific coast—in the middle of beauty & danger. The California Missions Trail is most like the historic European ones ...