Porta Castello was opened in the walls built by Pope Pius IV in the 1560s as a mere utility gate for the garrison of Castel Sant'Angelo and it was not embellished with inscriptions and coats of arms. For this reason Giuseppe Vasi paid little attention to it in this 1747 etching where he focused on showing groups of people enjoying a moment of leisure. On a fine day Romans came to Prati (meadows) di Castello to play and dance or just walk around. Private villas (apart from a section of Villa Borghese) were not open to ordinary people and the city did not have a public garden until the French designed a promenade publique on the Pincio in the early XIXth century. You may wish to see a page with details of this and other plates by Vasi showing moments of leisure.
The etching shows a small bridge in front of the gate; the section of the walls between Porta Angelica and Porta Castello was protected by a moat filled with water, which surrounded also the external bastions of Castel Sant'Angelo.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Castel Sant'Angelo; 2) Passetto. 1) is shown also in another plate: this page deals mainly with its fortifications, the northern side of the building and the papal apartment, the other page has additional information on its initial construction as a mausoleum and its history. The map shows also: 3) Porta Castello; 4) Borgo Pio; 5) S. Angelo in Borgo.
The view in February 2010
Today it is not possible to place oneself at the exact location from which Vasi took his view because the area of Prati di Castello was developed in the late XIXth century (see a map and a view from Casino del Belvedere). Porta Castello and the walls from there to Porta Angelica were pulled down. In the late 1930s because of the opening of Via della Conciliazione the level of the ground was raised and today the tops of the external bastions are almost at the same level as the modern street which surrounds them. The changes led also to the demolition of S. Angelo in Borgo, a small church near the bastions which you can see in a 1588 Guide to Rome.
View of the eastern side with Bastione S. Luca in the foreground
The fortifications of Castel Sant'Angelo towards the River Tiber were modified in the 1880s to make room for lungotevere; those inland have been less affected by changes; Bastione S. Luca was built by Pope Alexander VI and it was just slightly modified in the positioning of cannon by Pope Pius IV and by Pope Urban VIII; the moat was filled with water, but after the external bastions were built its space was used for warehouses and barracks.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi: Bastione S. Marco and Castel Sant'Angelo seen from within the external bastions; the etching shows military facilities between the old and the new bastions
Bastione S. Marco was built by Pope Alexander VI, but it was modified by Pope Pius IV who added embrasures for firing with cannon.
The external fortifications built by Pope Pius IV had a pentagonal shape: the two bastions along the river were demolished in the 1880s, while the three bastions inland remain, although they no longer appear as imposing as they were because of the level change of the surrounding ground. In line with the state-of-the-art military architecture of the time the bastions had the shape of an arrow head. Francesco Laparelli, the architect who designed them was eventually sent to Malta by Pope Pius IV to design the fortifications of La Valletta. Today the bastions are a public garden with access from the lungotevere.
In the final scene of Tosca, a 1900 opera by Giacomo Puccini based on a drama by Victorien Sardou, the heroine (Floria Tosca) jumps from the ramparts of Castel Sant'Angelo and falls to her death, after she discovered that her lover (Mario Cavaradossi) was actually killed during what she thought was a mock execution by a firing squad. Usually the scene is set on the terrace of Castel Sant'Angelo under the vigilant eye of the gigantic bronze statue of St. Michael the Archangel and Tosca can easily jump down from there. As a matter of fact executions took place in a much less evocative location: a small courtyard in the north-eastern corner of the castle. In general capital punishments in Papal Rome were carried out in public, but sensitive ones were dealt with in a more secret way behind the walls of Castel Sant'Angelo.
You may wish to read a description of a beheading in 1845 by Charles Dickens or to visit S. Andrea della Valle and Palazzo Farnese where the two first acts of Tosca are set.
View of the loggia
Pope Paul III was mainly concerned with providing himself with a comfortable residence in Castel Sant'Angelo, rather than with strengthening its fortifications; his apartment included a loggia designed by Raffaello da Montelupo and painted by Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta. It was the second loggia of the castle and it enjoyed a view over the countryside. That built by Pope Julius II faced Rome.
Unicorns were one of the heraldic symbols of the Pope and they appear in many reliefs and paintings which decorate the loggia and the papal apartment as well as in monuments in the family fiefdoms, e.g. at Ronciglione.
(left) Detail of the decoration with a unicorn and fleurs-de-lis, the main heraldic symbol of Pope Paul III; (right) Emperor Hadrian burns the promissory notes of State debtors
One part of our ills comes from the fact that too many men are shamefully rich and too many desperately poor. Happily in our days we tend toward a balance between these two extremes (..) but everything is still to be done for the intelligent reorganization of world economy. On coming to power I renounced the voluntary contributions made by the cities to the emperor. (..) My wholesale cancellation of private debts to the State was a more hazardous measure, but there was need to start afresh after ten years of wartime financing.
Marguerite Yourcenar - Memoirs of Hadrian - Translation by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author - Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1954 - Reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000.
Detail of the grotesque decoration by Siciolante
Sala di Amore e Psiche: (left) recreated bedroom of Pope Paul III; (right) coat of arms on the ceiling (you may wish to see a similar wooden ceiling)
The decoration of the papal apartment was such a major effort that it makes sense to believe that Pope Paul III wanted to use it for long periods of time and not only in case of danger. He commissioned Michelangelo to paint The Last Judgement in Cappella Sistina and Antonio da Sangallo the Younger to design an adjoining chapel (Cappella Paolina), so he did not forego the enlargement and embellishment of papal facilities at Palazzo Apostolico, but perhaps he preferred to spend some time in a building which did not need to be decorated as that of the Successor of the Prince of the Apostles, but rather as that of a lay and wealthy Renaissance sovereign.
The first large hall of the apartment to be completed in 1545 is traditionally known as the library, but today there is not much support for the appropriateness of this name. Old sources called it sala depenta, painted hall, because its walls were covered by frescoes which are almost entirely lost. The ceiling instead retains its extremely elaborate decoration. It is a particular kind of barrel vaulted structure which is almost flat at its centre.
Library: (above-left) Horatius Coclites stops the enemy at Ponte Sublicio; (above-right) grotesque detail; (below) frieze with tritons and nereids
Michelagnolo had already carried to completion more than three-fourths of The Last Judgement, when Pope Paul went to see it. And Messer Biagio da Cesena, the master of ceremonies, a person of great propriety, who was in the chapel with the Pope, being asked what he thought of it, said that it was a very disgraceful thing to have made in so honourable a place all those nude figures showing their nakedness so shamelessly, and that it was a work not for the chapel of a Pope, but for a bagno or tavern.
Giorgio Vasari - The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects - Translation by Gaston C. DeVere.
Most likely Pope Paul III did not invite his master of ceremonies to his apartment, because of some frescoes on the ceiling of the library; they are rather similar to the frieze at Palazzo Spada which was made in that same period and they both were inspired by reliefs of pagan sarcophagi.
(above) Sala dei Festoni: (left) Orpheus charming the beasts; (right) The Lady and the Unicorn; (below) Sala dell'Adrianeo: Scene in a Roman bath
Ancient and medieval tales are among the most recurring subjects of the many paintings which decorate the apartment. The idea for the scene in a Roman bath most likely originated from the excavations promoted by the Pope at Terme di Caracalla. Their aim was almost exclusively that of finding sculptures and marbles with which to adorn palaces and gardens, nevertheless they led to a better understanding of the functioning of Roman baths. In 1571 the usefulness of these establishments was highlighted by Andrea Bacci in De Thermis for the first time after many centuries during which bathing was regarded only as a source of lasciviousness which led to perdition.
Ceiling of Sala del Perseo with a relief depicting St. Michael the Archangel
Some of the ancient myths were revisited under a new light to establish links between them and current events. Perseus killing Medusa became a metaphor for the efforts made by the Popes to eradicate heresy and in particular Lutheranism. Eventually the role of Perseus was assigned to St. Michael the Archangel, who in the relief shown above was portrayed in a fighting pose rather than in the act of sheathing his sword after a pestilence, as per his apparition in 590.
The main hall of the apartment is named after the Pope. It was designed and decorated by Perin del Vaga with the assistance of Pellegrino Tibaldi in 1545-1547. A large fresco depicting St. Michael the Archangel and a second one on the opposite wall depicting Emperor Hadrian symbolized the dual origin of the building and the dual role of the Pope. A Greek inscription on the ceiling strengthened this concept by saying that the Pope turned the mausoleum of the Emperor into a holy site.
Sala Paolina: details of the ceiling: (left) Alexander and High-Priest Jaddus meet outside the walls of Jerusalem; (right) The Battle of the Hydaspes, a tributary of the River Indus
Pope Paul III was born Alessandro Farnese and the decoration of Sala Paolina, apart from the two portraits of St. Michael and Hadrian, was entirely devoted to the illustration of the life of Alexander the Great, of whom the Pope was a fervent admirer. He was neither the first nor the last to compare himself to the great Macedonian commander, to cite only Caracalla and Napoleon who both wanted to emulate Alexander's military successes.
When Jaddus understood that Alexander was not far from the city, he went out in procession, with the priests and the multitude of the citizens. The procession was venerable, and the manner of it different from that of other nations. It reached to a place called Sapha, which name, translated into Greek, signifies a prospect, for you have thence a prospect both of Jerusalem and of the temple. (..) Alexander, when he saw the multitude at a distance, in white garments, while the priests stood clothed with fine linen, and the high-priest in purple and scarlet clothing, with his mitre on his head, having the golden plate whereon the name of God was engraved, he approached by himself, and adored that name, and first saluted the high-priest.
Flavius Josephus - Jewish Antiquities - translation by William Whiston.
Alexander encamped on the bank of the Hydaspes, and King Porus was seen with all his army and his large troop of elephants lining the opposite bank. (..) Having thus arranged his army, he ordered the infantry to follow at a slow pace and in regular order, numbering as it did not much under 6,000 men; and because he thought he was superior in cavalry, he took only his horse-soldiers, who were 5,000 in number, and led them forward with speed. (..) Alexander made an attack on those opposed to him with such vigour that the Indians could not sustain the charge of his cavalry, but were scattered and driven to the elephants, as to a friendly wall, for refuge. Upon this, the drivers of the elephants urged forward the beasts against the cavalry; but now the phalanx itself of the Macedonians was advancing against the elephants, the men casting darts at the riders and also striking the beasts themselves, standing round them on all sides.
Arrian - The Anabasis of Alexander - translation by E. J. Chinnock.
Sala Paolina: one of the long walls where Perin del Vaga showed his mastery of painting techniques: (left to right) Alexander cuts the Gordian Knot, Prudence, Alexander with Sisygambis, Darius' mother
Alexander, after reducing Gordium into his power, entered the temple of Jupiter. There he saw the wagon in which it was known that Gordius, the father of Midas rode. (..) The noteworthy feature was the yoke, which was made fast by a great number of thongs, closely tangled with one another and concealing their interfacings. Thereupon, since the natives declared that the oracle had predicted that whoever should loose the intricate fastening would rule over Asia, the desire entered Alexander's mind of fulfilling that prophecy. (..) Afer having struggled for a long time without effect against the hidden knots: "It makes no difference" said he "how they are loosed" and cutting through all the thongs with his sword, he either tricked the oracle or fulfilled it.
Alexander gave orders that the same honour should be paid to the noblest of the Persians as well, and that Darius' mother be allowed to bury those whom she wished in the manner of their nation. (..) And now, after the proper rites had been performed for the bodies of the dead, Alexander sent a messenger to the captive women that he himself was coming to them, and denying admission to his throng of attendants, he entered the tent with Hephaestion. (..) Hephaestion was of the same age as the king, he nevertheless excelled him in bodily stature. Hence the queens, thinking that he was the king, did obeisance to him in their native fashion. Thereupon some of the captive eunuchs pointed out which was Alexander, and Sisygambis fell at his feet, begging pardon for not recognizing the king, whom she had never seen before. The king, taking her hand and raising her to her feet, said: "You were not mistaken, mother; for this man too is Alexander."
Quintus Curtius - History of Alexander - translation by J. C. Rolfe.
Sala del Tesoro
The apartment made use of some existing ancient structures and Sala del Tesoro is believed to have been one of the halls where funerary ceremonies in honour of the dead emperors were performed. It housed papal archives and its safes most likely contained documents rather than gold.
(left) Cappella dei Condannati; (right) Cappella di Papa Leone X: altarpiece by Raffaello da Montelupo
Castel Sant'Angelo was used for centuries as a special prison where the minimal rights of the inmates were forgone. In 1773 Pope Clement XIV abolished the Order of the Jesuits; Lorenzo Ricci, the Superior General of the Order, was imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo where he was kept for more than two years until his death; he was never accused of specific offences or brought to a court. A chapel on the ground floor provided religious comfort to those sentenced to death.
The apartment had its own small chapel which was built at the time of Pope Leo X. The gunners of the castle had a chapel at S. Maria della Traspontina.
Fragments of decorative reliefs inside Cappella dei Condannati
Overall view of Passetto from Castel Sant'Angelo (in the foreground Bastione S. Marco, the entry point to Passetto - the image used as background for this page shows a detail of its sentry box)
From the top of this Castle
you see distinctly the long Corridor or Gallery,
which runs from the Popes Pallace of the Vatican
to this Castle for the Popes use in time of danger. It was made by Pope Alexander the VI. and used by Clement the VII. who by it got safe
into the Castle, from the fury of the German Soldiers, who being many of them Lutherans, swore they would eat a piece of the Pope.
Richard Lassels' The Voyage of Italy, or a Compleat Journey through Italy in ca 1668
It is generally thought that Pope Nicholas III had the idea of using a stretch of the medieval walls surrounding the Vatican as a corridore (corridor) linking Palazzo Apostolico to Castel Sant'Angelo. The new walls built by Pope Pius IV after 1562 made the medieval walls useless, yet the Pope preferred to retain them because of the corridor. Over time they were called Passetto (small passage) because this was their only remaining purpose.
(left) Passetto towards Palazzo Apostolico; (centre/right) openings by Pope Pius IV at Via del Campanile (di S. Maria della Traspontina) and at Vicolo delle Palline
Pope Pius IV made several openings in the medieval walls to allow easy passage towards Borgo Pio, a new development between the old and the new walls: the openings were decorated with slightly different coats of arms of the Pope; because they were identical to those of Popes Leo X and Clement VII, they bear his name.
Walls of Passetto: (left) coat of arms of Pope Alexander VI; (centre/right) coats of arms of Pope Pius IV
Two Late Renaissance houses in Borgo Pio (the name of the neighbourhood and of its main street)
The development of Borgo Pio (aka Civitas Pia) was an early case of insider trading. When the relatives of Pope Pius IV knew that he was planning to build new walls, they rushed to buy the land which would have been included in the city and then they resold it in small plots, with an enormous gain.
Today Borgo Pio is full of shops and small restaurants catering for the tourists who return from a visit to Musei Vaticani, yet some houses still retain their original Renaissance appearance. It is characterized by a limited number of windows which left room for (lost) graffito paintings.
Wandering about Borgo Pio: (left) Door with name of the landlord in 1701; (centre-above) "I tre pupazzi" - the three puppets - ancient relief on the wall of a house; (centre-below) 1753 inscription under a "madonnella"; (right-above) Fontana di Borgo by Pietro Lombardi (modern); (right-below) 1797 inscription under a "madonnella" near Via del Campanile which grants 200 days of indulgence
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Quella sebbene venga stimata essere sostituita all'antica porta s. Petri, prese però il moderno nome dal vicino castello s. Angelo, perchè a comodo del medesimo fu qui aperta; ma senza alcun ornato di architettura. Fuori di quella porta uscendo, si vede un gran prato, nel quale cavandosi l'anno 1743. furono scoperte delle muraglie, la maggior parte delle quali erano in forma ovale; onde furono credute per sotterranei del Circo di Domizia, e di Domiziano. I prati, che si vedono più oltre, ora lavorati a vigne, furono i celebri prati Quinzj, ne' quali mentre coll'aratro in mano solcava la terra L. Quinzio Cincinnato, fu salutato Ditattore da' Legati Romani.
Dopo il divisato castel s. Angelo, segue una piccola piazza con 4. strade, quella a destra porta alla chiesa di s. Michele Arcangelo già eretta,come dicemmo, da s. Gregorio Magno in memoria della suddetta apparizione del santo Principe, e appresso di questa si vede il gran corridore fatto da Alessandro VI. Spagnolo, affinchè dal palazzo Vaticano si potesse passare segretamente al castel s. Angelo, che poi da Urbano VIII. fu ristaurato e coperto di tetto.