Musement takes a look at some curiosities about the Castel Sant’Angelo, one Rome’s most famous and important monuments.
Rome boasts plenty to see and do: from the Roman Forum to the Colosseum to the lesser-known historic areas to the popular piazzas, every corner of Rome tells a centuries-old story teeming with quintessential old-world charm.
One of the most famous monuments in Rome, perhaps just as iconic as St. Peter’s Basilica, is undoubtedly Castel Sant’Angelo. Commissioned in 125 BC by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum, Castel Sant’Angelo was completed by Antoninus Pius in 139 AD and was later used as a fortress and a prison. Thus, its history reveals some secrets of an unusual part of Roman history, not so well known, and at times with a touch of macabre.
Here are five fun facts about Castel Sant’Angelo that you might not already know.
1. The name
Until 590 AD, the monument that we all know as the Castel Sant’Angelo was called Hadrian’s Mausoleum, for the reason mentioned above. In 590, however, as Rome was suffering from a plague, the Archangel Michael appeared to Pope Gregory I during a procession to the mausoleum and sheathed his sword, a sign that the plague was ending. For the skeptics among you, we can only say that the plague did indeed end and that you can still see what are said to be the footprints of the Archangel etched in the stone on which he appeared. So, in honor of the Archangel Michael and the good news he had brought, the Hadrian Mausoleum was renamed Castel Sant’Angelo, and a statue of the angel was placed on top of the building.
2. The angel
That statue on top, however, would end up having an interesting yet troubled history in and of itself. The first version was made of wood and became so damaged that it fell apart, so a marble angel replaced it, which was itself destroyed during a siege in 1379. In turn, a third statue was erected, a marble angel with bronze wings, which was incinerated by a bolt of lightning in 1497. In its place, a new, golden bronze angel was put up, but this was also removed at one point and melted down to make cannons during the sack of Rome in 1527 by the Holy Roman Emperor’s Landsknecht troops. After yet another replacement angel came and went, made from marble and bronze, 1573 saw the installation of the bronze angel that still survives today.
3. The bridge
When we think of the Castel Sant’Angelo, the image that first comes to mind is that of the round fortress as seen from the Ponte Sant’Angelo (also called Ponte Elio), the iconic bridge across the Tiber adorned by marble statues. Back in the day, instead of the magnificent statues by Bernini, the bridge used to be adorned by the severed heads of those sentenced to death: a decidedly more macabre form of decoration, which served as a warning to all passers-by.
4. The executioner
All those heads weren’t going to chop themselves off — the official executioner of the Papal State did the dirty work. This office was held by Mastro Titta during the 19th century, who did double duty as an executioner and umbrella maker. He lived and worked in his umbrella shop in Borgo, a short walk to the Castel Sant’Angelo (also known as the Ponte Elio), and he’d take a break and stroll across the Ponte Sant’Angelo whenever his executioner services were required in the main squares on the opposite bank of the Tiber.
5. In pop culture
The Castel Sant’Angelo has inspired many personalities, filmmakers and songwriters throughout history. Its roof terrace is the point from where the namesake leaps to her death in the third act of Puccini’s famous opera Tosca while the fortress also makes an appearance in the Hollywood blockbuster Angels and Demons, and also in video games such as Assassin’s Creed II, with a starring role in Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood.