Castel Sant’Angelo reigns over the banks of the river Tiber, a stones throw from St. Peter‘s and a familiar and majestic monument on the city skyline. Today it’s a national museum and famed attraction but its history is far from serene. As a Roman tomb, a Renaissance prison and key military fortress for the Vatican, Castel Sant’Angelo is like a layer cake containing over 1,800 years of bloody, turbulent history.
Approaching the castle along the Ponte S. Angelo (itself a stunning work of art, flanked by Bernini angels) you’ll notice the castle’s namesake crowning the top. It is said that a gruesome plague in the late 6th century was lifted when the Archangel Michael appeared above the castle and sheathed his sword, symbolically ending the plague. The name has stuck ever since: Castle of the Angel. But the structure itself dates to much earlier. It was built as the tomb of emperor Hadrien in the 2nd century when it was topped by a small forest of Cyprus trees. It was later enlarged, turned into a fortress and became the scene of many battles between the Italian popes and French anti-popes. Later it was used as a prison and place of execution.
Now (after a brief stint as a concert hall in the early 20th century) Castel Sant’Angelo is a museum. Inside you can explore the many rings of its history from the haunting imperial tomb at its heart (later a place where Renaissance prisoners were left to starve to death) to its lavishly decorated papal apartments at the top where Pope Clement VII took refuge during the sack of Rome in 1527. Don’t miss the occasional exhibitions held here or the spectacular views from the top (stunning at sunset!) almost worth the price of admission alone. Look down on the walkway connecting the castle to the Vatican, the facade of Saint Peters, the river, and the spires and rooftops of the eternal city.
Lungotevere Castello, 50
Everyday 9am to 7.30pm
General Tickets € 10,50