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**

Lost in Rome

Rome looks different after dark….at least to the traveler

A delightful ending to a perfect evening in Rome was not meant to be.

I would never have guessed that I would be lost, wandering those early morning streets that I thought I knew so well.

The evening had begun with lots of merrymaking surrounded by friends at a popular pizzeria in Trastevere. Night time was in full swing, and the winding cobbled streets were alive with activity. Street bands played in nooks along the way while outdoor tables filled to the brim with locals and tourists enjoying the warm summer atmosphere in Rome’s most sought after nightlife destination. Trastevere, that former “seedy, wrong side of the river” place that draws one back time and again.

After dinner, we made our way through the throngs of people littering the narrow streets, checking vendor’s tables and enjoying the atmosphere. It was getting late, so we made our plans to meet up in the morning before going our separate ways. I was given a map to find my way back on foot to my hotel. It seemed simple enough. I just needed to follow the Tiber River northward until I reached Castel Sant’Angelo, then turn westward down a street. There in lied the problem. No one could remember the name of the street. I was staying at the “new” Castel Sant’Angelo Inn which was only half a mile from Castel Sant’Angelo itself. I assured my friends that I would recognize the place when I saw it.

Here is my map. If you look at the bottom you can see a circle where I left my friends. I walked up along the Tiber River northward until I reached Castel Sant’Angelo. Then I turned left toward the red patch on the map covering a number of streets. My hotel is there….somewhere.

Oh what a night! I followed the Tiber up to Castel Sant’Angelo and found the first street heading westward. I stopped to examine the map again, noticing the huge patch of advertisement stamped over the names of the three possible streets. Since I didn’t have a name, what did it matter. I can find this place.

I started down the street a ways and turned northward after what I assumed was about a half mile. If my hotel was not here, it must be on the next street. And so it went until everything looked the same to me. I was convinced that I would recognize my hotel, but I could not find it. I kept admonishing myself that it was only a half mile away, that it had to be very close to me….but where?

I texted my friend for help and she said she would find the name of the street and text it back to me. I had opted for the no data plan for overseas phone options, so I could not look my hotel up. While I waited, I asked several locals, pub owners and couples out for a late night stroll, for help. They looked at the map and shook their heads when I mentioned the Castel Sant’Angelo Inn. Since it was a new hotel in an old-established building, they had not yet heard of it. My heart was sinking.

Before long I got a text with the correct street name. A flood of relief. I gave the address to a pub owner who took me outside and gave me directions consisting of turn this way and then that, etc. I followed what I thought he said but got lost again. Finally, after countless inquiries and attempts, I found a taxi parked on the side of the road. With unmasked desperation, I gave him the street address. He gave me directions about turn this way and that. I told him I would pay him to take me there. He said no, I could find it, then gave me a “move along now” motion with his hand.

I turned on my heel and quickly acted on his directions, forcing my mind to stay relaxed. To my great delight, I found it. Key in hand, I was inside the hotel in a flash and made a beeline straight to my room. I gazed at my alarm clock on the nightstand. It was two thirty in the morning.

As I lay in bed trying to get a few hours sleep before meeting up with my friends, I thought about my wanderings. Although I was frustrated, I never felt that I was in danger. People tried to be helpful but with such little information it was impossible. I was sure I would recognize my hotel, but I learned that after dark everything looks quite different and how very easy it is to get turned around. Needless to say, we all had a good laugh together later that morning after everyone got over the initial shock that I had actually “got lost.” So, from now on I will always have my own detailed map with me. I’ll just mark this one down to experience.

Magnificent Roman Skyline from the Hotel Raphael Rooftop

La Terrazza Bramante, a garden restaurant on top of the Hotel Raphael provides panoramic views of the eternal city.

While enjoying a refreshing glass of Frascati wine at a small outdoor table near the Piazza Navona last September, I couldn’t help but notice the tall and lush Hotel Raphael across the street. The entire facade was covered with ivy and purple wisteria. As my eyes traveled from the front door entrance up the building to the top, I noticed some large umbrellas and wondered if it had a rooftop restaurant. I questioned my waiter about it and was told that it did. It was then I decided to enter the hotel and make my way to the top. I could only imagine the views of the city from this vantage point.

Golden lamplight spilled through the entrance toward the street as I entered the Raphael. The impeccably dressed gentleman at the front desk took a copy of my identification and told me how to reach the elevator.

La Terrazza Bramante, the rooftop garden restaurant, was more exotic than I imagined it would be. I had stepped off the elevator and into a multi-level terrace that offered elegant dining among tall fan palms.

Large umbrellas provide shade for diners. This is what attracted me from the cafe across the street.
A scattering of diners begin to arrive as the dinner hour approaches.

A handsome young waiter approached me and inquired if I would like a table. I accepted a menu from him and scanned the pages. A nice selection of gourmet organic, biodynamic vegetarian Mediterranean cuisine was on offer along with some of the best wines in Italy.

I wasn’t hungry for dinner yet, so I declined but asked if I could take a moment to enjoy the Roman skyline. He smiled and encouraged me to take my time.

The fading light over Rome inspires me to linger just a bit longer
The fading light over Rome inspires me to linger just a bit longer

The nearly 360 degree view of the eternal city at dusk was intoxicating. The restaurant faces the Bramante cloister in the church of Santa Maria della Pace. The terrace overlooks several architectural wonders of Rome, including the Pantheon, Castel Sant’Angelo, and the National Monument of Victor Emanuel II.

The dome of Santa Maria della Pace to the left and St. Peters Basilica in the center.
St. Peters Basilica to the left and Victor Emanuel II on the right with the quadriga, or chariot of horses, on top
The bell tower of the Church of St. Mary of the Soul, built in 1502.

The building of the Hotel Raphael itself seems to have been around for hundreds of years. Its believed that a fresco in the Vatican Museum clearly shows the building already in existence in the sixteenth century city. Florentine developer Spartacus Vannoni remodeled the interior into The Raphael, a luxury hotel with two lower level floors, seven upper floors, a multi-level rooftop terrace and a restaurant in 1963.

The 5 star luxury hotel is also a veritable museum of sorts. Artwork in the form of paintings, sculptures, antiques and a collection of Picasso ceramics are on public display throughout the building. American architect Richard Meier designed two of the executive floors which are of a modern decor.


Entrance to the Raphael

The ambience of the Hotel Raphael and La Terrazza Bramante rooftop restaurant left me with a yearning to return. In addition, the waitstaff were exceptionally friendly and cheerful. The hotel is nicely located and within walking distance to the Pantheon, the Trevi Fountain, Colosseum, Roman Forum and the Vatican.


Statuesque Villa Adriana Reveals Rome’s Sumptuous Past

One of several caryatids, or Greek statues, that line the Canopus in Villa Adriana

When I pass statues from antiquity, whether in a museum or in the environment, my curiosity perks. Who were they? What were their names and how did they impact their world? Most were worshipped as mythical deities or emperors who were believed to have powers to effect an individual’s life. Whether their powers be good or bad, most everyone watched their step with all due respect.

Villa Adriana, or Hadrian’s Villa, is just 18 miles east of Rome on the edge of the Sabine Hills. While strolling through the villa, I was amazed at the huge complexity. A long row of statues that lined an oblong lake, called the Canopus, still held stately reflections on the rippling water below them. These ghostly images, like echos from the past, seemed to signify the depth of immortality that these caryatids were thought to possess. The passing centuries haven’t been kind as some are missing a head or an upraised arm, or even gone altogether leaving empty spots. But a glimpse of the stunning overall effect still lingers.


Greek columns with Hermes in the center flanked by two Amazons. Alligator symbolizes the Nile River

Emperor Hadrian had the sumptuous villa built beginning around 117 AD as a ‘country home’ of sorts. He escaped the political rat race of Rome often to this hide-out that became a tranquil sanctuary for him and his friends. Glorious banquet rooms, luxurious bathing facilities, and his own floating island where he could isolate himself for a time are just a few of the amenities Villa Adriana had to offer.

Hadrian was a world traveler and architect. Spanish-born, he had a deep passion for the Greek culture and made attempts to replicate what he saw. The famous Pantheon and Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome are testaments to his grand architectural designs.


Caryatids line the Canopus

The lake was completely surrounded by statues of various deities that likely supported a huge pergola over the water. It must have been a breathtaking effect to look upon this green canopy. It’s easy to imagine small gilt rowboats skimming the top of the waters, escorting their passengers to a sumptuous feast or a moonlight pleasure cruise. Sadly, very little is left of this glorious vision of the past. Much of it was plundered over the centuries by barbarians and the marble burned to make lime.

Greek god Hermes stands in the center with helmet and shield. Although these statues are replicas of the original, they look impressive.

His villa was enormous and filled with copies of his favorite buildings from around the world. He spent the last ten years of his life here on his three hundred evocative acres. Villa Adriana expresses the lavishness and enormous power of ancient Rome.

Historians and archaeologists today believe that the Canopus represented a branch of the Nile River in Egypt. At one end was a shell shaped grotto with fountains dedicated to the Egyptian god Serapis whom the Romans worshipped. Summer banquets and nighttime parties around the Canopus were famous for imperial excess.


A mere hint of what was

What remains of the temple of Serapis on one end can be partially seen to the left.


Neptune reclines along the lake


These old olive trees are huge! One of several around the Villa Adriana

The afternoon grew hot and I was ready to seek some shade after several hours of traipsing over ancient ruins. What once was a huge and undoubtedly elaborate complex is now just a shell of rubble. But for those with any imagination, it’s not hard to recreate the grandiosity of what once was the richest, most famous and stunning Roman villa in the world.

My first day in Rome at Castel Sant’Angelo

My first day in Rome, after checking into my hotel, was spent exploring the labyrinth of walkways, courtyards and rooms that make up Castel Sant’Angelo. Although tired from a long flight, the walking did me good. The spiraling richness of the structure was fascinating. It is much more complex than I had expected. Towering impressively next to the Tiber River, it is now a museum of Renaissance artworks and old military equipment.

Emperor Hadrian had it built around 135 AD as a mausoleum for himself and his family, but it has been used by the popes through the ages as a military fortress and prison.


On top of the Castel is an open area with panoramic views of Rome. The wind was gusty as people posed and snapped photos. In this one, off to the left, you can see Victoria Emmanuel with it’s two winged chariots sitting aloft.

View of  Victoria Emanuel from on top of Castel Sant'Angelo
View of Victoria Emanuel from on top of Castel Sant’Angelo

Below is a section of the old Roman streets. How did they walk on these? It made me thankful for the smooth roads we have now in our day. But we can give the Romans credit for being the first to build them.


The following photos are taken inside the Castel Sant’Angelo….

Inside Castel Sant'Angelo looking out through the arches
Inside Castel Sant’Angelo looking out through the arches
Gazing down at the Tiber River and beyond
Gazing down at the Tiber River and beyond


Vine covered walkway
Vine covered walkway
Spiral walkway leading down to the lower level
Spiral walkway leading down to the lower level

The Archangel Michael, from which Castel Sant’Angelo got its name, sits high and lofty on top. Very impressive!


Below is the old original angel, made of marble, and kept in a courtyard inside the Castel.


Tomorrow will take me to Trastevere where I plan to explore the Jewish Ghetto, try some fried artichokes, and wander up the Gianicolo hill for some tremendous views of the Eternal City. Stay tuned…… more to come!