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Secret passages of Rome

8th Sep 2015

Ever since I was a child, I have always loved the thought of discovering a secret passage that may be hidden behind a bookcase or through a fireplace that leads to a secret room or tunnel. I’m sure I’m not the only one who had this fantasy. The appeal of sneaking around, undetected, exploring places that no one else knows about, the sort of thing you only read about in books or see in the movies. But when I moved to Rome, I learned that my dream could soon become a reality.

Secret passages have long been used throughout history, dating right back to the ancient Egyptian Pyramids, where secret passages and booby traps were used to to conceal the burial places of the dead.

Also early Christians, who were persecuted by Roman authorities in the 2nd century AD, built secret passages that let to hidden rooms to conceal their gatherings for worship.

So it’s no wonder, that in a city that dates back a a couple of thousand years, that there’s bound to be more than a few secret passages around.

But the question is, where you do find them? You could start by delicately knocking on walls, listening for the telltale hollow sound on the other side, or literally start pulling every book out of a bookshelf, in the hopes it will somehow unlatch a lock in which the bookcase would magically spin around, but at the end of the day, this could be quite time consuming and highly unlikely.

So I started out by doing my research and headed to Vallicelliana Library in Piazza della Chiesa Nuova. The library itself looks like something out of an ‘Indiana Jones’ movie. Books from floor to ceiling, incased in dark oak wood shelving. This Baroque library which was founded in 1565, probably houses its own secret passages, however I wasn’t planning on pulling out any books from the selves on this trip, as I’d probably be forcibly removed from the building. However the library does have many books relating to medieval history. I did discover that there is a secret passage that leads from Villa Pamphilj on Via Aurelia Antica. The tunnel which is 1.5 km’s long, leads from ‘Casino del Bel Respiro’ (The large villa in the centre of the park) to the Vatican. The tunnel was used as an escape route for Popes when the building was still located outside the city walls. However it turns out only a few custodians of the home have ever seen or had access to this tunnel, so I decided to cross this one off my list.

But luckily for me, this isn’t the only secret passage that leads from the Vatican. I soon learned about a more famous one. One that takes you from St. Peter’s to Castel Sant’Angelo, incognito style, over the streets of Rome on what looks like an ancient city wall. It has been used by Popes in the past when the city has been invaded. Pope Alexander Vl crossed it in 1494 when Charles Vlll invaded the city and Pope Clement Vll used it to escape to safety during the Sack of Rome in 1527. Even more recently the secret passage was used by Tom Hanks in the movie ‘Angels & Demons’ when he is portraying the fictional character Robert Langdon hot on the tail of the Illuminati.

The ‘Passetto di Borgo’ (Its official name in Italian) was constructed in the 13th Century by Pope Nicholas III as an escape route from Vatican City to the more heavily fortified Castel Sant’Angelo, where they could then further escape down river on the tiber. The secret passage is not normally open to the public, but during the summer months in Rome, visitors can explore it up until 1am in the morning.

Strangely enough I have driven past this hundreds of times on my scooter and never once realised it was a secret passage. It just looks like one of many tall brick walls that line the city. It’s certainly well worth a visit and doesn’t disappoint.

Another worthy mention, however not in Rome, but well worth seeing if you’re touring Italy, is the secret passages situated in Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Inside the famous town hall, the ‘Studiolo’ and the ‘Tesoretto’ are linked by secret passages, which back in the day, offered a rare chance of privacy for the rulers of Florence. Once inside you will get to climb up the narrow passages of Duke Walter de Brienne’s medieval stairway and you will discover an unexpected passage beyond a door hidden by a painting. Something straight out of a movie.

Through Eternity also offer a fascinating tour called ‘Catacombs and Early Christianity’. It’s a private tour of the Catacombs where you will walk through small chapels and tunnels that wind deep under Rome. It’s the perfect tour if you are wanting to do something a little different from the norm. The passages and their secrets await you!

– By David Dodd –