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**

Two Places Where Italy Isn’t Really Italy After All

Did you know that Italy’s borders encompass two separate, independent countries? Most people are familiar with Vatican City as being one of them, but the other has escaped my attention until just recently. Because of my curious nature, I did a bit of research about these two countries and discovered how uniquely different they are from each other.

The picturesque little country of San Marino, Europes third smallest country after Vatican City and Monaco, has a population of just over 32,000 spread out over its 24 square miles of hilly land. Founded in 301 AD, it sits high on a mountaintop in north-central Italy toward the Adriatic side and is popular with tourists. San Marino is the oldest republic in the world and has a parliamentary government based on rules written in the late 16th century. Although not part of the EU, it uses the euro as currency like Vatican City.

Fortress of Guaita, San Marino (photo credit

San Marino has managed to keep its independence for a long time mostly because of its hilly terrain. In the 1800’s many supporters for the unification of Italy found relief from persecution in these hills. As a result, a friendship treaty was signed by the Italian state that would guarantee San Marino’s independence permanently.

Borgo Maggiore, San Martino (photo credit

If you find a chance to visit San Marino, be sure and climb the historical towers for gorgeous views of the town and countryside. The Centro Storico di San Marino is a great place to discover the heart and soul of its people. If you like a private local tour guide, you can contact Tours by Locals. They have several options, and the personal touch can be very enjoyable.

The flag of San Marino displays a coat of arms with three towers on three peaks of Monte Titano. White stands for peace and blue for liberty.

Vatican City, a semi-walled city-state inside Italy’s capital city of Rome, is ruled by The Holy See, the central government, of the Catholic church and is the centre of the Roman Catholic Church. As a monarchy, it is lead by the pope. Vatican City is also the world’s smallest country on only 100 acres and owning a population of 800. As one of the most powerful countries on earth, it is also, unsurprisingly, one of the richest.Each of the two countries has their own flag, anthem, stamps, coins, and licence plates. Both countries are internationally active, including U.N. memberships, but they are not entirely in line with the Italian government and politics. San Marino has a parliamentary government based on rules written in the late 16th century.

St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican City (photo credit

Have you ever wondered how someone becomes a citizen of Vatican City? To begin with, unlike any other country, acquiring citizenship in Vatican City has a due date. It is temporary and only for people directly working in the Vatican which can include their close family. Cardinals resident in Vatican City or Rome, diplomats of the Holy See or people residing in Vatican City because of their office or service all comprises the body of citizens. However, it is only the last category that requires an actual grant of citizenship.

Pretty exclusive, wouldn’t you say?


Vatican City flag displays the Keys of St. Peter, one in gold which signifies spiritual power, and one in silver for worldly power. The Papal Tiara can also be seen.

There is much to see inside of St. Peters Basilica and Vatican City. For tours through its extensive museums, the Sistine Chapel, or the underground, visit Vatican Tours.

Gardens of the Vatican City (photo credit

While touring Italy, take a couple of short detours into these little countries. They have a lot to offer anyone seeking to understand and enjoy another region. Of course, they are very Italian, but they also conduct their lives and affairs as proud independents.