The Castel Sant'Angelo is situated on the right bank of the Tiber River in Rome, Italy. Its strategic location near the bridge of Sant'Angelo and its virtually impregnable fortifications made it a key factor in the defense of the northern part of the city. The castle would play an important role for the popes throughout the Middle Ages.
Originally constructed c. 135 C.E. as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian (the "Hadrianeum"), the structure would later serve as a burial site for several emperors before becoming part of the city's defense system. It was converted into a fortress in the early 5th century.
The castle owes its name to an incident that occurred in 590 C.E. After leading a procession of penitents around the city, pleading for relief from a deadly plague (a scene depicted in a page from Les Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry), Pope Gregory the Great had a vision of the archangel Michael. In this vision, the angel sheathed his sword over the castle, indicating that the plague was at an end. Gregory renamed both the Hadrianeum and the bridge "Sant'Angelo" after the angel, and a marble statue of St. Michael was constructed atop the building.
Throughout the Middle Ages, the Castel Sant'Angelo was a refuge for the popes in times of danger. Pope Nicholas III is credited with having a fortified passageway leading from the Vatican to the castle constructed. Perhaps the most famous instance of a pope's confinement in the castle is that of Clement VII, who was virtually imprisoned there when the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V sacked Rome in 1527.
The papal apartments were particularly well-appointed, and the Renaissance popes were responsible for lavish decor. One notably sumptuous bedroom was supposedly painted by Raphael. The statuary on the bridge was also constructed during the Renaissance.
In addition to its role as a residence, the Castel Sant'Angelo housed papal treasures, stored substantial foodstuffs in case of famine or siege, and served as a prison and place of execution. After the Middle Ages it would be used in part as a barracks. Today it is a museum.
Castel Sant'Angelo Facts
- Located in Rome, Italy
- Built c. 135 C.E. by and for Emperor Hadrian
- Owned by emperors and, later, popes
- Served as a fortress, papal residence, storehouse and prison
- Currently the National Museum of Castel Sant'Angelo
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Castel Sant'Angelo Resources
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National Museum of Castel Sant'Angelo
Official website of the museum. In Italian.
Castel Sant Angelo - Rome - Visitor Guide
More about the castle, its hours of operation, how to get to the castle and what you'll find there, from About.com Guide to Europe Travel James Martin.
Castel St. Angelo: The Hadrian's Mausoleum
Summary of the castle's history is preceded by thumbnails that lead to 360° views and more photos, at Italy Guides.
Brief historical description with several photos, at A View on Cities.