Castel Sant’Angelo: A Turbulent Tale of Angels and Demons


Dan Brown’s book, “Angels and Demons” flashed through my mind as I crossed the Ponte Sant’Angelo one morning in Rome. Ten Baroque statues of angels line the bridge, each bearing a symbol of the suffering and death of Christ. Designed by Bernini in the early 17th century, they look down demurely at passersby from their travertine marble perches. They feel like a silent presence, outwardly still but internally watchful.

Angel on the Ponte Sant’Angelo

Castel Sant’Angelo awaits at the end of the bridge. Reminding me of a cross between a king’s crown and a wedding cake, it stands majestically among the monuments of Rome. Packed with history, it has been here for 2,000 years. Emperor Hadrian had this huge cylinder, built in 139 AD, as a mausoleum for himself and his family. However, for nearly 100 years after Hadrian’s death, it continued as the burial grounds for succeeding emperors as well, ending with Caracalla 217 AD.

Over the past 2,000 years, Castel Sant’Angelo has been more than a funerary monument. It was used as a fortified outpost, a notorious prison complete with a torture chamber, a palace for the popes embellished with Renaissance art, the keep of the Vatican treasury and finally a museum.

Model of Hadrian’s Mausoleum

What I discovered as I toured the fortress, now the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo, fascinated me. At the time of Hadrian, the mausoleum was topped by a garden of Cypress trees and crowned by a golden quadriga, a huge statue of him riding a chariot. It was the tallest building in Rome.

In ancient Rome, tombs were not allowed inside the city limits. This pertained to the emperors as well, even though they were looked upon as gods. So Hadrian chose a commanding position just outside the city walls and across the river. Even today, it holds a stately presence among the many monuments of Rome.

It helps to get a bit organized so I’ve included a brief overview of the 6 levels of Castel Sant’Angelo:

Level 1- Begins the winding Roman construction ramp, the Courtyard of the Shooting and the Chapel of the Condemned.

Level 2- Hall of Urns, former prisons, and storerooms

Level 3- Military displays, papal apartments, the courtyard of the angel (Cortile dell’Angel), which houses the former archangel, Hall of Justice

Level 4- Exquisitely decorated papal apartment with sumptuous frescoes by artists of the school of Raphael (Luca Signorelli, Carlo Crivelli), archaeological gallery, historic Armory.

Level 5- Treasury, Library

Level 6- The Angel Terrace providing amazing views of Rome, especially the Vatican and St. Peters Basilica

Castel Sant'Angelo
A look at Castel Sant’Angelo and the Passetto di Borgo ( the pope’s secret escape). Drawing by Ludovico Bisi, from “Short visit to Castel Sant’Angelo.” Photo courtesy of National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo.


Upon entering, an old cobbled road winds around the base. This fortress has a lot of stairs. One leads down to the original Roman floor and follows the route of Hadrian’s funeral procession. There is a bridge that crosses the room where the ashes of the emperors were kept. The urns and ashes were scattered by Visigoth looters during a sacking of Rome in 410.

Inside the Treasury

The Sala del Tesoro is the treasury where the Vatican wealth was kept locked up in a huge chest. The rooms are ornately decorated with rich frescoes and marble.

The former angel used to crown the top is now kept in a courtyard, called Cortile dell’Angelo

The Passetto di Borgo is intriguing in itself and historically fascinating. You have probably heard of an elevated fortified corridor commissioned in 1277 AD by Pope Nicholas III leading from Vatican City to the Castel Sant’Angelo (thanks to Dan Brown). The passage served as an escape route to the Castle for popes during times of war and sackings.

Castel Sant'Angelo Passetto
The ‘Passetto di Borgo’ runs along the top from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo. All three photos courtesy of National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo
Castel Sant'Angelo passetto inside
Inside the pope’s passageway
Castel Sant'Angelo passage
Yellow line indicating the route of the passageway from Castel Sant’Angelo to Vatican City

Enjoy a gallery of photos from my day spent inside this massive fortress. It would take a book to explain everything. One of several things that impressed me was the circular walkways leading up and down within. Wide and tall, they were lit with the golden light from wall lamps. Effectively mysterious…

DSC00278 DSC00249 DSC00248

The Angel Terrace offers dazzling views of Rome from several directions. The wind was gusty so walking from one end to the other for a view was slightly challenging.

Angel’s Terrace

It’s from here you can get up close to the majestic Archangel Michael, who stands on the very top. As I gazed up into his face, I had no doubt that he means business.


So what’s the deal about the angel Michael? As the story goes, in the year 590, the Archangel Michael appeared above the mausoleum to Pope Gregory. The angel sheathed his sword, and the pope took it as a sign that the plague was ended. It soon became a fortified palace renamed the castle of the holy angel.

Close beside the Archangel Michael is a large bell, called the Bell of Mercy. Beginning in the mid-1700’s it was wrung to inform the people of capital executions of the prisoners while a prison.

As the grand finale, enjoy some views of Rome taken from the Angel’s Terrace 

St. Peters Basilica
Zoomed in on Rome! Can you figure out some of the monuments?

**Resources used are from the National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo**

Rome’s Fountain of the Four Turtles

rome turtle fountain

The spritely “Fontana delle Tartarughe,” Fountain of the Turtles, is located in the Piazza Mattei in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome. Beautifully expressive while quite intriguing, the late Renaissance sculpture is one of the few fountains that were not built for a pope, but for a private patron. However, from the beginning, this particular little fountain also encountered a big problem.

Originally, the fountain had several dolphins around the base, some of which were designed to spew drinking water up and out toward the public and landing in a large basin. However, because the fountain’s water source, a reservoir near the Piazza Spagna, was not much higher than the fountain, the water pressure was insufficient. As a result, four of the dolphins were removed, leaving the figures of the adolescent boys with nothing for their upstretched hands to support. To correct this, four bronze tottering turtles, designed by Bernini, were placed on top of the vasque rim to balance the composition.

Rome Turtle Fountain

As you watch the altered fountain today, you will notice a single upward jet of water in the vasque that trickles down through the mouths of the cherubs and into a lower basin. From there, four small streams trickle through the dolphin’s mouths and into awaiting conch shells. It was from here that the surrounding neighborhood collected their drinking water. Originally, a Roman sarcophagus sat next to the fountain filled with water to discourage horses from drinking out of the fountain.

Interesting to note, you can catch a few glimpses of the fountain in the movie, The Talented Mr. Ripley. But I suggest that, next you find yourself in Rome, look up the fountain and watch the water trickle down through it’s many portals to the waiting conch shells. Dip your thermos into the clear pool of water and enjoy some of Rome’s very best.

If you are like me, you love the fountains of Rome. Which one is your favorite? And why?

Rome’s Sparkling Fountain of the Four Rivers

Piazza Navona, Rome
Piazza Navona, Rome

The Piazza Navona is truly a carnivale of life. With a reputation of being one of Rome’s liveliest piazze, it constantly commands a large audience of locals and tourists. Restaurants with covered outdoor tables encircle the piazza offering diners a comfortable place to enjoy entertainment by street performers, impeccably dressed Italians, and Bernini’s three beautiful fountains.

Whenever I spend time in Italy, I’ve found that the experience means so much more if I have a little background history about those places I plan to visit. My first walk through the Piazza Navona was exciting, but I wish I had delved a bit into the historical background beforehand. That being said, I encourage you do a little research of your own and make your experience so much more rewarding.

Let me share a little bit of what I’ve learned….

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi
Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (The Fountain of the Four Rivers)

The Fountain of the Four Rivers, designed by Bernini in 1648, is my favorite. Water gushes up out of rocks forming an aqua blue pool at the basin while the four continents, or river gods, hang on and ride the waves. They are The Danube (Europe), The Ganges (Asia), The Nile (Africa), and The Rio de la Plata (The Americas).

Rio della Plate River God
Rio de la Plata River God

Each river-god contains a symbolic item. The Rio de la Plata above sits on a pile of coins which represents the riches America could offer Europe.

The Nile River God
The Nile River God 

The Nile river-god covers his head, representing the idea that no one knew where the Nile originated at that time.

fountain 4 river

The Ganges, above, holds a long oar that represents the river’s navigability. And finally, the Danube, to the left, holds the pope’s personal coat of arms since it is the largest river closest to Rome.

A surprising detail concerning the creation of the fountain in 1646 was that Pope Innocent X had it built at the public’s expense. It took place during the years of a terrible famine in Rome so, naturally, the people threatened to riot. Notes of despair were found on the monument expressing anger with the words, “we do not want Obelisks and Fountains, it is bread that we want.” However, the pope chased the rebel-rousers out along with the market, which was moved to the Campo di Fiore.

The oval-shaped Piazza Navona was built on former emperor Domitian’s stadium in 86 AD. Paved over in the 15th century, remains can still be seen of the stadium under the piazza.

Egyptian Obelisk
Egyptian Obelisk

Through the construction of this fountain the pope intended to proclaim the churches influence on the four continents to be very strong, spreading to all four corners of the Earth.

Sparkling Fountain of the Four Rives!
Sparkling Fountain of the Four Rivers

If you find yourself in Rome, it’s highly likely you’ll find your way to Piazza Navona. Stand back and marvel at the dramatic beauty of the fountain and recall to mind not only the historical implications, but also the hardships it required of the people of Rome.

Eye Trickery and Shattered Illusions in Rome

Wandering the maze of streets in Rome is a favorite pastime of mine. I can’t seem to resist finding what lies around the next corner and I am often surprised by something unexpected or beautiful. On a recent late afternoon of meandering, I stepped through an archway and into the courtyard of the Palazzo Spada. I glanced through a window on the left and became suddenly transfixed. Through the office room and into the courtyard beyond I saw a long row of columns with a distinct statue at the end. I had seen this before, but where?

















Years ago, I had seen a photo on the back page of a magazine I had found in the lunchroom at work. It was Francesco Borromini’s forced perspective gallery. I found it striking to look at, so I took it to my art history instructor. She was stunned to read about it and told me she had never known of it before. I left her with the magazine and next day it was discussed in class. I hadn’t seen or thought much about it since.

With growing excitement, I realized that I had stumbled upon Baroque architect Francesco Borromini’s forced perspective gallery inside the Palazzo Spada. Encased in a little garden of Seville oranges, it appeared as a long white colonnade with a dazzling gold ceiling. At the end was the single statue of a Roman soldier. Overcome with excitement, I dashed around the corner, paid my admission, and entered the tiny courtyard.

What is so amazing about this colonnade and statue is that Borromini created it with trickery in mind! He used optical deceit to create an illusion of depth that doesn’t really exist. The illusory depth suggests somewhere around 114 feet, yet in actuality, it is only 29 feet deep. And the magnificent warrior at the end? He is only three feet tall! Diminishing rows of columns and a rising floor create a visual illusion.

 * The full scale...the floor rises as the ceiling comes down and the column grow shorter.
The full scale…the floor rises as the ceiling comes down and the columns grow shorter.

A small group of us gathered around, simply amazed at the optical illusion set before us. I recalled the fact that curiosity dominated the art world during the early seventeenth century, and that artists and architects applied great effort to dazzle viewers and outshine the wonders of nature by ingenuity. Borromini’s forced perspective gallery is a brilliant example of such ability.

The Illusion is putting a normal size person next to the statue
The Illusion is Shattered…by putting a normal size person next to the statue































Cardinal Bernardino Spada bought the Renaissance palace in 1632 and hired Francesco Borromini to embellish it shortly afterward. Borromini, a rival of famed architect Bernini, created his perspective among other modifications in one year.

Facade of the Palazzo Spada
Facade of the Palazzo Spada and the archway that I walked through
Through the arch into the main courtyard of the Palazzo
Through the arch into the main courtyard of the palazzo, Borromini’s perspective can be seen through a window/room to the left. The entrance to the museum is straight ahead through the second archway and to the left.




























Arches in the Palazzo courtyard
Arches in the palazzo courtyard
Palazzo Courtyard
Niched statues on the upper portion of the palazzo Courtyard




















I left that evening with a new understanding of perspective and how easy the eye can be tricked by optical illusions. Francesco Borromini was known for using this style of architecture in his buildings, including St. Agnes in Agone on the Piazza Navona. Here he constructed the facade with a concave front so that when you stand directly in front of it and look up, you can see the dome which appears much closer than it really is.

Below, I have included a short video of the perspective gallery that I found on YouTube. It gives a clear overview of this clever form of architecture that is very fascinating.

Empire of the Eye: The Magic of Illusion