30 March 2011

Castle Hunting: Castel Sant'Angelo

I'm sure most people have assumed that I wouldn't be doing a castle hunting post for Vatican City. Well, I am, and it's not even that much of a stretch. Castel Sant'Angelo is a two minute walk from our apartment, and we pass it so often that it's blended into the scenery. It used to be the papal fortress (it's now owned by the country of Italy), and was a refuge for various popes during troubled times. I took a few of these pictures early one morning, and most of the rest on an afternoon visit with my brother.
The fortification has a long and unusual history. The base of the main building is a huge cylinder of limestone, built between the years 123 and 139 by the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a tomb for himself and his family. Inside, a defensible passageway circles up through the stacked stone blocks and once accessed a high, parklike space on top. It's use as a resting place was brief, though. In 401, the huge mausoleum was incorporated into the new city walls and fortified - the tombs were desecrated after the fortress was sacked in 410 and much of the original statuary and decorations were destroyed to be used as ammunition against the Goths who had besieged the city in 537.
The gradual fortification of the structure was accelerated when the papacy purchased Hadrian's tomb in 1277. The walls were strengthened and heightened, and a second defensive system was put in place around the outer perimeter in the shape of a square. The popes were concerned, at the time, about their safety in Rome, and wanted some kind of fortress in case of invasion. This is the view from the top of the walls, with the basilica rising against the sky on the left. A long wall is visible on the right - this contains a passageway, called the "Passetto di Borgo," which connects the Vatican's main complex to Castel Sant'Angelo. It was used infrequently for actual escape, though I am told that it is featured in several works of fiction. I have never read Dan Brown, but apparently everyone else has and knows about this walkway.
The upper walls enclose a pretty little collection of courtyards and buildings - there is now a cafe and an art museum housed in the castle. It's a little warren-like, and it's easy to miss the directional signs, but the sun was pleasant and the views out over Rome are spectacular.
The popes made many renovations that were non-military in nature, and the uppermost spaces are beautifully decorated with frescoes and plaster moldings. Inside, where the art museum now is, the rooms are nearly as fantastic as those in the Vatican museums. Photography is prohibited, but I can assure you that it's striking. This is certainly unlike any castle I've ever seen. There is, for example, a church on site that was designed by Michelangelo.
The Sant'Angelo bridge was also erected by Hadrian, in part to access his new tomb. It has survived remarkably well, and is now decorated lavishly with renaissance-era statues. Here it is, stretching across the muddy, springtime Tiber.
Roman history is different - this is a city that has so many old things that millennia seem shortened and antiquity has become part of everyday life. This castle is amazing. It is no longer part of the Vatican, and it's military importance has long been minimal, so it appears now as a kind of layered story in stone. The great cylinder is like a giant, archaeological core sample of the past two thousand years: ancient rome at the bottom, the later finery of the renaissance on top, the middle ages sandwiched in between.

1 comment:

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