Castel Sant’Angelo history

castel sant angeloThe beautiful Castel Sant’Angelo, also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, has a fascinating history. The latter name derives from its founder; the roman emperor Hadrian.
The construction of this great building started in year 135 AD and finished just 4 years later.

This also included the magnificent bridge in front of the castle – excluding the angel statues which were added later. Hadrian never got to see his mausoleum completely finished, as he died one year before its completion.

The emperor’s ashes were placed in the mausoleum, together with those of his wife and his first adopted son who died at young age.

A mausoleum for emperors

castel sant angeloThe mausoleum became a resting place for not only Hadrian, but also several of his successors. The last one to be interred in the building was Emperor Caracalla in year 217 AD. While the original structural design of the mausoleum is uncertain, historians believe it was composed of a square base with a large cylindrical body, crowned by a statue of Hadrian riding a chariot.


castel sant angelo nightHowever, as one can see today, the Castel Sant’Angelo neither consists of only a cylindrical body, nor does it have a chariot statue at the top. This is due to the fact that the building has been serving several purposes throughout its history. This has in turn which has lead to several expansions of the building.

Exactly how the mausoleum used to look like during its peak is hard to say, as the original design is still uncertain. However, a report from the 6th century which describes the building has made historians believe that only the Colosseum surpassed it in splendor.

Barbaric invasion

passetto di borgoThe first change took place when the mausoleum was turned into a fortress during the decline of the Roman Empire. The fortress could however not stop the barbaric invasions and the sacking of Rome in the early 5th century.

Unfortunately, the sacking meant that the majority of the mausoleum decorations were stolen and much of the tomb content became scattered. The mausoleum took further damage when Rome was sacked once again in the 6th century.

Strategically located

Up until the Middle Ages, Castel Sant’Angelo was owned by various Roman families until the Papal state acquired the fortress in 1377. The Vatican saw great potential in the old fortress, as it was strategically located at the northern entrance to Rome – close to both the Vatican City and the Tiber River.

Passetto di Borgo

castel sant angelo nightIt didn’t take long for Pope Nicolas the 3rd to convert it into a proper castle. The pope also connected the castle to St Peter’s Basilica with an elevated passage. The passage is known as Passetto di Borgo and still exists today. The passage is located on the west side of the castle.

Visitors will see it as a wall-like structure leading all the way to Vatican City. The fortified passage is located on top of this wall and allowed for a quick and secure passage between the two buildings, in case of an emergency.

A bloody place

castel sant angelo statueThe Papal state did not only use this structure as a castle, but also as a prison where many noted Italians have been imprisoned.  Several executions took place in the small inner square and sometimes the mutilated bodies were displayed on the bridge in front of the castle in deterring purposes.

Gunpowder adaptations

Throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, Castel Sant’Angelo kept serving as a military fortification. In order to adapt to the use of new fire weapons, several expansions took place.

castel sant angelo statueThe bastions located in each corner dates back to this period and was meant to house artillery for defensive purposes. The walls were also surrounded with a moat filled with water from the river Tiber.

Why visit Castel Sant’Angelo ?

Castel Sant’Angelo is a beautiful site, full of history. The castle is crowned by a large statue at the top. The statue was also added during the Renaissance and depicts an angel. This angel honors an old legend which has given the castle its current name.

The legend

The legend holds that the Archangel Michael appeared at the top of the mausoleum in year 590. After he appeared, he sheathed his sword as a sign that the plague which had tormented Rome finally had come to an end.

castel sant angelo statueThe original statue was made in marble, but was later replaced with the bronze replica that stands today. The original statue can however still be found at the open court inside the castle.

The museum

The castle really only lost its military function in 1925, when it was renovated and began to serve as a national museum, which it still does today. While the museum is certainly worth a visit, you should definitely explore Castel Sant’Angelo itself.

Lots to discover

The many different roles the castle has played are all here for its visitors to discover; all the way from the funeral passage of Hadrian to the beautifully-frescoed interiors from the Papal expansions as well as the defensive battlements of the Renaissance.

Anyone interested in history and architecture, will certainly enjoy a visit to Castel Sant’Angelo. It is also possible to access the top of the castle. It will give provide great view over Rome in general and the St Peter’s Basilica in particular.

Castel Sant’Angelo location

Castel Sant’Angelo is located on the banks of the Tiber in the heart of RomeItaly. The castle is situated close to the Vatican City. For the exact location of Castel Sant’Angelo, check out the location map to the right.

Castel Sant’Angelo Video

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