With nearly two millenia under its belt, the Castel Sant’Angelo may be the oldest essentially intact castle in the world. It is also one of the largest intact Roman structures still standing. In the nearly nineteen centuries since its construction, the Castel Sant’Angelo has played many roles as a fortress, a tomb, a papal residence and as a prison. Its prominent position near St. Peter’s Square places the castle in the jurisdictionally fuzzy area between the Vatican and Italian authorities. Because of its history and periodic restorations, the Castel Sant’Angelo is both an architectural and cultural bridge between Rome as capital of the Roman Empire and Rome as headquarters of the Catholic Church. It now houses the Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo. The Castel Sant’Angelo is part of the Historic Centre of Rome UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Europe’s oldest intact castle did not begin as a castle, but rather as a mausoleum built for the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his family early in the 2nd century AD. After his death Hadrian’s body was burned and the ashes placed here in the mausoleum. He was followed by most of the Emperors of the Nervan-Antonian and Severan Dynasties. During the waning years of the Roman Empire, the Mausoleum of Hadrian was treated as a sacred site by the citizens of Rome who increasingly looked to their own past in search of hope and the return of better times.
By the end of the 4th century, the threat of invasion by German tribes began to look ever more likely. In 401 AD the immense and strongly built mausoleum was put to more practical use as a fortress and incorporated into the defense system of the city. However, this effort spared neither the city nor the castle. Less than a decade later, Visigoths under Alaric swept in and sacked the city, and much of the castle was looted. It is uncertain what may have survived the Visigoth conquest, because anything that did was finished off by the Ostrogoths a century later. Only a part of Hadrian’s funerary urn has survived and is now a decoration in St. Peter’s Basilica.
After the Byzantine reconquest of Italy and its subsequent loss again to yet more German tribes, Rome became something of a backwater city and the Castel Sant’Angelo became a coveted possession by the city’s leading families. It barely survived a revolt in the 14th century. However, as the end of the Middle Ages approached, the Papacy, which was becoming ever wealthier and politically more powerful, took over possession of Sant’Angelo. The Castle was restored and refortified as a Papal refuge from the city-state wars that were then ravaging Italy.
These upgrades proved particularly useful during the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, when the city of Rome became increasingly militarized. The Castel Sant’Angelo was used as an emergency refuge for the Pope in 1527 when the armies of the Holy Roman Empire sacked the city. Sant’Angelo later also served as a prison for important and heretically dangerous prisoners, and was the site of more than a few executions. The castle was decommissioned in 1901 and is now run as a museum under Vatican oversight.
The Castel Sant’Angelo was built in many stages over many centuries. The centerpiece is the enormous central building which looks like a traditional round tower on steroids. This beautiful building was the original Mausoleum of Hadrian where the ashes of the Roman emperors were entombed. Because of its thick walls and limited windows it was easy later Romans to convert the place into a fortress. The main Castle is surrounded by a strangely shaped polyganol wall that was once incorporated into the city’s outer wall defenses. These walls were added and rebuilt several times during Sant’Angelo’s long history. The place is topped with a bronze statue of the Archangel Michael for whom the castle is named.
The castle interior little resembles the original construction design of the mausoleum. All of the ancient Roman treasures are long gone. The current interior largely dates to the 15th century when it was converted into a mini-palace for use by the Popes during wartime. It is now home to a museum. The Castle does not have particularly extensive grounds. However, its spectacular setting by the Tiber is worth mentioning, as is its proximity to the Ponte Sant’Angelo. The Sant’Angelo Bridge, one of the most beautiful surviving Roman bridges in Europe, was built to connect the Castle with the rest of Rome.
The Castel Sant’Angelo is located on the west side of Rome just north of the Tiber River and Sant’Angelo Bridge and less than a third of a mile away from St. Peter’s Square. It is open year round except on public holidays. From April through September the Castle is open from 9:00am-7:00pm; and from October through March from 9:00am-2:00pm. Admission is E8.00. Web: www.castelsantangelo.com (official website)
Interestingly, one of the greatest estates and palaces to survive from the ancient Roman period can also be attributed to Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian’s Villa, located about a hundred miles east of Rome in Tivoli, was an architectural theme park built by Hadrian as an imperial getaway and features replicas of famous monuments from across the Mediterranean world.