Castel Sant'Angelo: As big as it is now, Castel Sant'Angelo, was even bigger and had a huge central tower when, in 139 AD, Emperor Antoninus Pius completed the mausoleum that was begun by his adoptive father, Hadrian. (It was this act of filial piety that gained him the cognomen Pius.) A slightly smaller mausoleum, the "Tomb of Augustus", on the other side of the river held the ashes of earlier emperors, from Augustus to Nerva. Trajan's ashes were put into the base of his column in the Imperial Forums, but later emperors, from Hadrian through Caracalla, and many of their family members went into Hadrian's mausoleum. The tomb eventually became a defensive structure when Aurelian incorporated it into his walls (constructed in only five years from 271-275 A.D.), and later it became the keystone of the Vatican defenses. Various Popes enhanced the structure and remodeled its interior over the centuries, and it now has several rooms with impressive Renaissance decorative artwork.
The structure acquired its "Sant'Angelo" name in 590 AD during a procession that Pope Gregory I, The Great, organized in hope of alleviating a plague. According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared upon the summit of Hadrian's tomb and was seen to be sheathing his sword as a sign that the plague was over. A great wooden statue was placed on the top of the tomb to commemorate the vision. That statue was the first of six known statues. Number five is in the "Courtyard of the Balls" on a lower level, and an 18th century bronze statue is now at the top of the Castel next to an alarm bell of unknown but supposedly ancient origin..
The Castel is also the scene of the last act of Giacomo Puccini's opera, Tosca, which premièred in 1900. The opera's hero, Mario Cavaradossi, is executed on the roof of the Castel, and its heroine, Floria Tosca, leaps to her death from the parapet after assassinating the evil Scarpia. Within weeks of the opera's opening, the reigning king of Italy was assassinated, and many contemporary commentators associated his death with the revolutionary theme of the immensely popular opera.
The Castel and its collections of arms, decorations and artifacts are open for public tours Tuesday through Sunday. Good English (and other) language audio-guides are available but you also need the free printed brochure to keep track of where you are, and you have to listen closely to the audio-guide which tells you how to find the next space on the itinerary. Person-guided tours are also available in English and other languages.
The original entrance to the tomb, with three openings, was on the side of the base that faces the river. The current entrance is at least three meters higher up. From here a corridor (dromos) led to a square vestibule with a semi-circular alcove on the back wall, faced with yellow Numidian marble. The helicoidal gallery which rises ten meters and leads to the funeral chamber begins to the right of the vestibule. The vault of this corridor, with four vertical light wells, is in rubblework; the pavement still retains traces of its original mosaic decoration while the walls were covered with marble to a height of three meters.The Funeral chamber, right at the center of the massive drum, is square ( 3m. per side) with three rectangular niches; illumination is from two oblique windows in the vault. The cinerary urns of the emperors were placed in this room. Above the funerary chamber where two superposed cellae which by means of an annular corridor led to the top of the monument.
As early as A.D. 403 the emperor Honorius may have in corporated the building in an outpost bastion of the Aurelian walls. In 537, when it was already a fortress, it was attacked by Vitiges and bis Goths. In the 10th century it was transformed into a castle. Its appearance today is that of a massive fortress on a square base and with circular towers at the four corners (known as the towers of St. Matthew, St. John, St. Mark, and St. Luke) onto which a circular body has been grafted. This was built following the lines of the Imperial mausoleum under Benedict IX. Further work was ordered by Alexander VI and by Julius II who had the south loggia above the papal apartments added.
At the summit is the panoramic terrace,
watched over by the Angel about to fly off, which seems to be why
the building is called as it is, for the winged messenger is said to have
saved Rome from a terrible plague at the time of Gregory the Great.
The bronze statue of the archangel Michael crowning the battlements today was made by
Pietro van Verschaffelt in the mid-18th century. It is the sixth angel statue to occupy the pinacle. During the invasion of 1798 Napoleon's army painted it with the colors of the Revolutionary Tricolor.
The first angel statue placed on the monument supposedly was made of wood and eventually just rotted away.
The second one in marble fell down and broke into pieces.
The material and fate of the third Angel is unknown.
The fourth, in
bronze, was melted for the cannons used in 1527 during the sack of Rome,
perhaps at the command of Benvenuto Cellini.
The fifth, in marble, is today displayed in what was once called the "Courtyard of the Balls" (so named after the cannonballs of different sizes that wereon display -- they have now been moved to another courtyard on the same level). The malapropos wings are undoubtedly late additions: Renaissance Angels were often portrayed without wings.