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The mysteries of Castel Sant'Angelo: endless stories of a fortress nearby the Vatican

30th Mar 2015

While James Bond’s Aston Martin rolls carelessly down the riverside, I’m left to ponder what there is in the world more fascinating than the Eternal City at night. I’m sure you can’t come up with an answer either. And this is probably why the special agent decided to set this astonishing city as the scenery for his new adventure – very clever, Mr. Bond.

The other night, I decided to follow the riverside from Ponte Sisto. The path was uncertain and obstructed by lights and props and cameras and trucks, but I managed to reach the ultimate place of enchantment – Castel Sant’Angelo.

If you’re an avid reader of mystery novels as I am, you might know it as the final location of Professor Langdon’s Path of Illumination in Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons” (if this is the case, I suggest you take a tour of all the Roman sites of the novel – Through Eternity, for example, takes you through an intriguing tour of Rome in the footsteps of Robert Langdon).

But even if you’ve never read the novel, you probably know Castel Sant’Angelo anyway. The building was built in 125 by Emperor Hadrian as his funerary mausoleum and was then completed by Antoninus Pius in 139. Many emperors and some of their family members were buried – and still are – in the building, which was later converted into a military fortress.

Legends say that in 590, while the city was afflicted by a horrible plague, the Archangel Michael appeared on top of the mausoleum, sheathing his sword in a sign that pre-announced the end of the plague. This legend is where the current name of the mausoleum originated from, and is also why a marble statue of Saint Michael bearing his sword now surmounts the castle.

The fortress is incredibly close to the walls of the Vatican and to Saint Peter’s basilica. In fact, it didn’t take long for the popes to covert the building into a fortified annex to the basilica. To this day, Castel Sant’Angelo is connected to the church by a corridor called the Passetto di Borgo, used by the popes when in danger and seeking refuge from the Vatican. Soon enough, the castle became a real papal residence, and even now popes use it to spend their summer vacations there (lucky them!).

Before becoming a luxurious home however, Castel Sant’Angelo was first and foremost a military stronghold and a prison. The different levels of the structure, in fact, were designated to different levels of prisoners. The ground floor, for example, was destined to high-profile personalities, such as the famous Benvenuto Cellini, accused of stealing some of the papal treasure during the Sack of Rome. Even more famous is his escape attempt, which ended up in a broken leg and in him getting secluded into the prison vaults. If you take a private tour of the castle, you will be able to visit Cellini’s cell and see what remains of a drawing of a resurrected Christ that he made on the walls.

Another VIP of the prison was Giordano Bruno, who was then burnt alive in Campo de’ Fiori, where a statue dedicated to him can be found today.

After all this history, you are probably wondering – as I am – why this marvelous construction has been so terribly haunted by torture and death. Even after Saint Michael announced the end of the plague, it seemed that the castle remained impregnated by a certain aura of mystery and thrill that can still be felt on a tour of its halls. The great Italian composer Puccini himself had probably perceived this same atmosphere around the fortress, resorting into using it as the setting for the third and last act of his Tosca. It is on the bastions of Castel Sant’Angelo, where Mario is writing his last love letter to Tosca (“O! Dolci baci / O! Languide carezze!” “Oh, sweet kisses and languorous caresses!”), that the man gets shot accidentally. Tosca, distraught and desperate, decides to jump off of the castle.

Even after having lived in Rome for three years, there are things that can still mesmerize you. A stroll on the Tiber bank is one of those. And once you reach the point where the riverside curves after Saint Peter, let Castel Sant’Angelo hold you prisoner for a night – you won’t regret it.

– by Francesca Mirabile –