A Tomb with a View

The first time I laid eyes on Castel Sant’Angelo, looming large over the banks of the Tiber, a chill ran down my spine.

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Having spent days wandering through Rome in a romantic haze of columns and fountains and orange gardens, the unabashed militaristic presence of the castle took me aback. The approach was softened somewhat by the glorious Ponte Sant’Angelo, lined with dazzling white marble angels…

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… but once the angels were behind me the castle scowled down once more, redolent of murder and intrigue. It started life as a mausoleum commissioned by the emperor Hadrian and completed by his adoptive son a year after Hadrian’s death. For years it housed the ashes of Hadrian and many other notables including Septimius Severus, Marcus Aurelius and his son Commodus, but in 410 AD, Alaric and his merry Visigoths hit town and left a trail of destruction in their wake, ransacking the city and castle, scattering the ashes to the four winds.

It lost its function as a tomb and became a fortress, gaining its present name in 590 AD when Pope Gregory saw a vision of the Archangel Michael atop the mausoleum. Rome was plague-stricken at the time, so the canny Pope struck a deal with the apparition; he would build a memorial to the Archangel if he could make the plague go away. The plague duly went away and Gregory kept his promise which is why the present structure is adorned with a statue of the Archangel. The angel on the roof is a ‘new and improved’ angel installed in 1753; the original marble angel now lives in the Courtyard of the Cannonballs.

Now the Popes took over the castle, using it as a residential castle and a place to guard their treasures and ever-increasing wealth. Pope Nicholas III ordered the building of an elevated, fortified passageway connecting the castle to Vatican City. Known as the Passetto di Borgo, it facilitated the escape of several popes in peril. The infamous Pope Alexander VI (he of the many mistresses and offspring including Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia) hot-footed it down the Passetto di Borgo in 1494 and hunkered down in the castle when Charles VIII invaded the city. Later still, Pope Clement VII hoisted his cassock and legged it along the passageway during the Sack of Rome in 1527. While the Pope camped out in the safety of the castle, the Swiss Guard were massacred.

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But the bloodshed didn’t end there.  While the papacy stashed riches and entertained mistresses upstairs, the lower levels were used to incarcerate, torture and execute political prisoners. Philosopher Giordano Bruno was held here and interrogated by the Roman inquisition for championing the heliocentrism that Copernicus had made so popular. He also suggested that the sun was just one of many stars in the sky; postulating that there could be many worlds such as ours circling many stars out there in the universe.  Unlike his contemporary Galileo Galilei, Bruno refused to recant and was burned at the stake. More often than not, however, the bodies of executed prisoners were displayed on the bridge as a warning to would-be miscreants. No wonder the place gave me the shivers.

Puccini set his opera Tosca here during the time it was an active prison. The eponymous heroine, upon discovering her love had been executed, threw herself off the roof of the castle and plummeted to her death. Nowadays there’s a cafe on the rooftop terrace, so you can sip a cappuccino and take in the awe-inspiring view Tosca would have enjoyed on her way down.

xxx Ailsa

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - wheresmybackpack.com - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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35 Responses to A Tomb with a View

  1. Noeleen says:

    Informative post, good photos, great title!

  2. Trish says:

    Fantastic history. I’ve learnt something. Thanks Ailsa.

  3. I love the last line of your post!
    you could perhaps do a challenge on other tombs with a view? The Taj Mahal comes to mind, for one

  4. katieprior says:

    Beautiful photos and a chilling story! I love the one of the Swiss Guard, excellently framed. 🙂

  5. Rusha Sams says:

    Much good information here, along with your excellent writing! Thanks for posting. I’ve never been here, so it’s good to know the original intent as well as what it has become.

  6. Nice write up and images, a very informative post 🙂

  7. Thanks for the historical info, Ailsa. It always amazes me how humans have come up with the most creative ways to torture and kill other humans for the sake of power, basically. You picked up on the evil energies in this place… I’ve gotten shivers like that in various historical places myself.

    • ailsapm says:

      It really did give me the creeps, Annette, you could almost hear the wail of prisoners. Beautiful building with a murky past. xxx

  8. Who could resist that title? Great opening and perfect close. Thanks for the history (told in such an entertaining way…do you have pictures of the original top angel?)

    • ailsapm says:

      Grin, glad you enjoyed it, phil! These shots were taken on my way to the Vatican – which is a rather bizarre episode I’m going to be writing about soon – but on the day I went inside and up to the roof, my camera decided to freak out so I got no usable shots of the interior or the rooftop. 😦

  9. Pamela says:

    …hoisted his cassock and legged it…… …. the view Tosca would have enjoyed on her way down. Oh dear! you do have a turn of phrase…I really shouldn’t be made to laugh so in a public library!!
    Interesting and informative post. Like.

    • ailsapm says:

      Most excellent! You have uncovered my wily plot to bring laughter to the stuffiest of libraries around the world, glad it worked! 😉

  10. Lucid Gypsy says:

    An excellent pocket history lesson!

  11. colormusing says:

    Fascinating! I’d love to go there to feel the atmosphere you describe.

  12. Jaspa says:

    I love the Castel Sant’Angelo. Did you get to go inside, Ailsa?

    • ailsapm says:

      I did, but my camera decided not to co-operate, I got no interior shots at all. 😦 Still, it’s a great excuse to return, right? 🙂

      • Jaspa says:

        Any excuse to go back to Rome is a good one! I’ve only been once so far, but Rich first went there before we met. One of his excuses for returning was that he didn’t get to go inside Castel Sant’Angelo the first time around.

  13. loganbruin says:

    I always take the tour when I’m in Rome, just to get to the roof and ask the guide if this is the exact spot where Tosca took her leap. . . just to watch them blow their top. “She is FICTION!” ;o)

  14. tchistorygal says:

    What an exciting story! You do lead an interesting life. 🙂

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  16. josimonian says:

    Fascinating history. Thanks, Ailsa!

  17. Whew, fascinating history in a not so pretty building!

  18. ideflex says:

    Your last paragraph clinched it for me – absolutely love your travelogues!

  19. I sat at that rooftop cafe and watched a couple make an innocent mistake (innocent, I suppose, if you’ve never been in a city before and live in a cave) and feed an inquisitive pigeon a piece of their…oh, bun or crisp or whatever they were eating. Big, big mistake for them; the bird immediately started going after every item on the table in front of it. I was sitting behind them thinking, “Are you new at this or something?”

  20. Your storytelling gives good credit to the whole story – full of facts but enjoyable!

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