This is one of the best known views of Rome, but Giuseppe Vasi was not the first one to depict it in 1754; Gaspar Van Wittel (1653-1736), a Dutch landscape painter who spent most of his life in Rome painted this view of the River Tiber in the 1690s (it opens in another window). Vasi chose a point of observation closer to Ponte S. Angelo than Van Wittel and his etching provides a more detailed view of Piazza di Ponte, the square which was located at the beginning of the bridge; Vasi shows to the far left Cappella della Conforteria where
those sentenced to death were comforted prior to the execution which took place in a corner of the square; the chapel belonged to Arciconfraternita della Misericordia, a brotherhood of the Florentines who lived in Rome in a nearby neighbourhood.
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) Cappella della Conforteria; 2) Palazzo Altoviti; 3) Basilica Vaticana; 4) Palazzo Apostolico; 5) Spedale di S. Spirito; 6) S. Maria della Traspontina; 7) Castel Sant'Angelo. 3), 4), 5), and 6) are shown in other pages. The map shows also: 8) Ponte Adriano or S. Angelo. Vasi showed Castel Sant'Angelo also in plate 20 and that page has additional information on its fortifications and the papal apartment.
The view in August 2009
In the 1880s the river bed was enlarged and high walls were built on its banks in order to prevent floods; the small arches at both ends of Ponte S. Angelo were replaced by two arches of the same size as the central ones. These changes impacted on Piazza di Ponte which was significantly reduced in size. Palazzo Altoviti and Cappella della Conforteria were demolished.
This painting gives an idea of the size of Piazza di Ponte and it shows Palazzo Altoviti on the left side. Casa Bonadies, the house with the ancient columns, today is closer to the beginning of the bridge because of the enlargement of the river bed.
The front of Castel Sant'Angelo was modified by relocating its 1628 entrance to a side wall of the building and by pulling down a XVIth century bastion to unearth a tower built at the time of Pope Nicholas V.
December 2008: Ponte Sant'Angelo coped with XXIst century carelessness: it withstood the impact of poorly moored boats during a heavy flood
The ancient name of the bridge was Pons Aelius; it was built almost exclusively to allow access to the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian (Publius Aelius Adrianus) and to facilitate its construction; as a matter of fact it became the most important bridge of medieval Rome because the other bridges collapsed, exception made for Ponte Quattro Capi.
Vasi showed Ponte Adriano also in another plate. That page has additional information on the bridge and a detailed description of its statues.
Giovanni Battista Piranesi: View of Ponte Adriano and Castel Sant'Angelo (1756)
Musei Vaticani: (left) Bust of Emperor Hadrian; (right) gilded bronze peacock from the mausoleum
My mausoleum, on top of which they are just now planting the cypresses, designed to form a black pyramid high in the sky, will be completed about in time to receive the ashes while yet still warm. (..) The little group of intimates presses round my bed. (..) To the last, Hadrian will have been loved in human wise. Little soul, gentle and drifting, guest and companion of my body, now you will dwell below in pallid places, stark and bare; there you will abandon your play of yore. (..) Let us try, if we can, to enter into death with open eyes ...
Marguerite Yourcenar - Memoirs of Hadrian - Translation by Grace Frick in collaboration with the author - Farrar, Strauss and Giroux 1954 - Reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000.
Emperor Hadrian at Castel Sant'Angelo: (left) ancient bust near the entrance; (centre) painting by Perin del Vaga in Sala Paolina; (right) 1940 bronze statue by Franco Goio in the gardens surrounding the monument
The behaviour of Emperor Hadrian was a subject of controversy during his lifetime and after his death; the imposing mausoleum he built on the right bank of the river was at risk of not being completed because of the opposition of the Senate, but Emperor Antoninus Pius, his successor, insisted on its completion and wanted to be buried there, thus turning the building into the funerary monuments of the emperors (Caracalla was the last emperor whose ashes were placed inside the mausoleum). The overall aspect of the mausoleum was similar to that built by Emperor Augustus on the left bank of the river at a relatively short distance. You may wish to see the assumed round mausoleum of Emperor Galerius at Thessalonica and the octagonal mausoleum of Emperor Diocletian at Spalato.
(left) Ancient structure faced with "tufo" and travertine blocks; (right) fragments of the decoration
In 1379 (at the time of Antipope Clement VII) the people of Rome stript off the marbles and destroyed tbe square
base, and would, conformably to their decree,
have torn down the round tower itself, but
were unable from the compact solidity of the
fabric. (..) The resistance of the
naked tower, when actually exposed to the
triumphant rage of a whole people, must augment our respect for this indissoluble structure.
The efforts of the Romans are still visible in
the jutting blocks which mark where the corresponding portion of the basement has been
John Cam Hobhouse - Dissertations on the Ruins of Rome - 1818
The mausoleum consisted of a circular tower on a square base; on the roof of the tower there was a mound having at its top a round temple; a statue of the Emperor driving a chariot drawn by four horses, was placed at the top of the temple; there is a possibility that the horses which today are in Venice were in origin part of Hadrian's chariot; the Emperor was portrayed as Helios, the Greek god of the sun; Hadrian belonged to gens Aelia and Aelius, his second name, sounds very similar to Helios.
The structure of the building was made up of opus caementicium (see a page dealing with Construction Techniques in Ancient Rome) and it was faced with travertine and tufo. It had an elaborate marble decoration and many statues were placed on the balustrade of the roof.
(left/centre) Circular ramp; (right) hall of the cinerary urns
Along the circular passage, which by a gentle inclination slopes spirally to the foundations of the tower, throw a cannon-ball; it disappears in the shadow, and continuing to roll on the arena and awaking a multitude of echoes, conveys to the ear with the prolonged sound of thunder the perspectives of the distance. In the heart of the dungeon a vault of extreme height, with niches hollowed out to receive Colossi, marks the old columbarium of the Antonines.
Francis Wey - Rome - 1903 English edition.
The top of the building was accessed through an internal circular ramp which allowed the passage of carriages. The mausoleum was designed by the architect Demetrianus with suggestions from the Emperor himself.
Read Lord Byron's verses dedicated to this monument.
St. Michael the Archangel: (left and right) statue by Raffaello da Montelupo in Cortile dell'Angelo; (centre) painting by Pellegrino Tibaldi in Sala Paolina
In winter 590 Pope St. Gregory the Great made arrangements for Litania Septiformis, seven processions which started from different churches; they all gathered at S. Maria Maggiore and from there they proceeded towards S. Pietro; the objective of Litania Septiformis which was headed by the Pope was to pray for the cessation of a plague. When St. Gregory was about to cross the bridge he saw St. Michael the Archangel at the top of the mausoleum in the act of sheathing his sword: this was interpreted as a sign of the end of the pestilence, which actually ended soon afterwards; the apparition changed the name of the mausoleum and of the bridge.
The fate of the modern city, and even of the
papal power, has in some measure depended
upon the castle of Saint Angelo. (..) Of such importance was
this fort to the pontiffs that the taking of it is, by an ecclesiastical writer, ranked with a famine, an eclipse, and an earthquake. (..) The Caesar Crescentius seized and refortified the castle so strongly, that it was called
afterwards his rock or tower and all the efforts
of an imperial army, commanded by Otho III.
in person, were insufficient to dislodge him. Hobhouse
The utilization of the former mausoleum as a fortified site began in 547 during the Greek-Gothic War; in the IXth century Pope Leo IV built walls between Castel Sant'Angelo and S. Pietro.
The popes however were unable to retain control over the castle which became a stronghold of the Crescenzi and eventually of the Orsini. The latter had a palace/fortress also on the other side of the river.
The popes regained control over Castel Sant'Angelo after their return from Avignon and Pope Boniface IX cleared the central tower from the rubble it was surrounded by and fortified the square base; he also built a new internal ramp which was more easily defensible, owing to its traps. Pope Nicholas V built small towers on the walls along the river.
Pope Alexander VI promoted a major restructuring of Castel Sant'Angelo by building bastions at each corner of the base, by providing the central tower with battlements, by building warehouses to store supplies and by initiating the development of a papal apartment.
Cortile del Pozzo o di Alessandro VI: (left) well decorated with the coat of arms and heraldic symbols of the Pope (see a larger image); (right) semicircular wall with traces of the decoration
Pope Alexander VI held key positions in the papal court when he was a cardinal; in particular he supervised the construction of many fortresses (e.g. Nepi and Subiaco); he had therefore a direct knowledge of the needs of a garrison; at Castel Sant'Angelo he built cisterns to store water and oil, but the fulfilment of practical needs was always associated with works of art; the well was very finely decorated and the semicircular wall of Cortile del Pozzo was painted and used as background for theatre performances.
Pope Julius II, Pope Leo X and Pope Clement VII were mainly involved in enlarging the papal apartment; during the 1527 Sack of Rome, Pope Clement VII lived for a month in that apartment; his successor Pope Paul III greatly strengthened the fortifications of Rome, but not those of Castel Sant'Angelo where he focused on adding new halls and facilities to the papal apartment.
Commanders of Castel Sant'Angelo and of the papal army: (left) Monument to Antonio Rido (d. 1450) a "condottiere" from Padua, who fought in the service of Popes Eugenius IV and Nicholas V; (right) inscription celebrating improvements made to his apartment by Zenobio Savelli, Duke of Palombara, during the pontificates of Clement XII and Benedict XIV
The military commander of Castel Sant'Angelo had a key role in ensuring the safety of the popes. The last threat to a pope occurred in 1557 during a war between Pope Paul IV and the Spanish Viceroy of Naples. After that event and apart from some threats which did not materialize in 1643 during the First War of Castro, the popes did not have to worry about an enemy army marching towards Rome until the 1798 French occupation of Rome. During this period the position of commander of Castel Sant'Angelo was entrusted with relatives of the popes or members of the Roman aristocracy. Some of them, e.g. Carlo Barberini and Tommaso Rospigliosi, were portrayed in ancient Roman military attire in statues at Sala dei Capitani in Palazzo dei Conservatori. Eugenio Pagliucchi, the last commander, surrendered the castle on September 29, 1870, nine days after Italian troops had entered Rome near Porta Pia.
Captain Sandrino Monaldi came at once into my prison with about twenty of the castellan's servants. They found me on my knees. (..)
The captain spoke as follows: "You must be aware that there are many of us here, and our entrance has made a tumult in this place, yet you do not turn round".(..) The captain, in some alarm, and not knowing what I might be on the point of doing, said to four of his tallest fellows: "Put all your arms aside". When they had done so, he added: "Now upon the instant leap on him, and secure him well. Do you think he is the devil, that so many of us should be afraid of him? Hold him tight now, that he may not escape you". Seized by them with force and roughly handled, and anticipating something far worse than what afterwards happened, I lifted my eyes to Christ and said: "Oh, just God, Thou paidest all our debts upon that high-raised cross of Thine; wherefore then must my innocence be made to pay the debts of whom I do not even know? Nevertheless, Thy will be done." Meanwhile the men were carrying me away with a great lighted torch; and I thought that they were about to throw me down the oubliette of Sammalo. This was the name given to a fearful place which had swallowed many men alive; for when they are cast into it, they fall to the bottom of a deep pit in the foundation of the castle. This did not, however, happen to me.
Benvenuto Cellini - Autobiography - Year 1538
(left) Decoration of Cappella di Leone X by Michelangelo; (right) Cortile dell'Angelo
Today Castel Sant'Angelo is a National Museum, where one can admire its extraordinary artistic and historic heritage.
Upper terrace with the statue by Peter Anton von Verschaffelt (it is shown also in the image used as background for this page) and detail of the sword
In 1752 a bronze angel by Flemish sculptor Peter von Verschaffelt replaced the statue by Raffaello da Montelupo at the top of Castel Sant'Angelo. The new statue was made up of 35 bronze pieces and its structure was strengthened by three iron bars inside the shell. The two angels could not have been portrayed in a more different way; the design of the bronze statue was influenced by a famous painting by Guido Reni, while the angel by Raffaello da Montelupo, who worked for Michelangelo at the completion of the Monument to Pope Julius II, had the composure of an ancient warrior in a moment of rest.
Angels sheathing their swords to indicate the end of a pestilence can be seen in monuments of Vienna.
Clickable image ....
.... and its clue
The interior of the castle is scarcely worth a visit, except it be for the sake of mounting to
the summit, and enjoying the prospect of the
windings of the Tyber. Hobhouse
The terrace offers fine views over Rome. You may wish to click on the image above and jump to some of the buildings marked with a number in the image below or you may wish to see a page with larger views of Rome from Castel Sant'Angelo.
Museo di Roma a Palazzo Braschi: (left) 1612 engraving showing fireworks; (right) Franz Theodor Aerni: The Fireworks at Castel Sant'Angelo in ca 1874
The show began with a tremendous discharge of cannon; and then, for twenty minutes or half an hour, the whole castle was one incessant sheet of fire, and labyrinth of blazing wheels of every colour, size, and speed: while rockets streamed into the sky, not by ones or twos, or scores, but hundreds at a time. The concluding burst - the Girandola - was like the blowing up into the air of the whole massive castle, without smoke or dust.
Read more of Charles Dickens's account of the fireworks at Castel Sant'Angelo in 1845. They were asociated with the illumination of the dome of S. Pietro.
Re-enactment of historical fireworks on June 28, 2009, the evening before the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul
According to tradition in 1481 Pope Sixtus IV celebrated the tenth anniversary of his election with a firework display from Castel Sant'Angelo; until 1887
the fireworks at Castel Sant'Angelo were one of the main attractions of Rome; Michelangelo and Bernini designed temporary structures for enhancing
their effect; the display ended with la Girandola, a major launching of rockets from a structure on the top terrace, which was similar to a gigantic pinwheel toy.
You may wish to see an entire page on the re-enactement of the fireworks.
Museo di Palazzo Venezia: Tribute to Ceres, goddess of agriculture, fresco by Giorgio Vasari on a ceiling of Palazzo Altoviti
Palazzo Altoviti was the result of the redesign of a previous building which occurred during the XVIth century at the initiative of Bindo Altoviti, a rich Florentine banker. In 1553 some rooms of the palace were decorated by Giorgio Vasari, a leading painter from Florence and the author of Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, the first modern art history text. The Altoviti had a farm/suburban residence on the other side of the river.
Museo di Palazzo Venezia: Giorgio Vasari: (left) Allegory of Florence; (right) Allegory of Rome
Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:
Questo rotondo e maraviglioso masso, che ora vediamo spogliato di ogni ornamento, fu edificato, come dicemmo, dal suddetto Elio
Adriano Imperatore ad imitazione del Mausoleo di Augusto, per collocarvi le sue ceneri, e seppellirvi i Cesari suoi successori, giacché
quello era già pieno, ne' più vi si sotterrava alcuno. Era questo tutto ricoperto di marmo pario, e circondato di maravigliose colonne, colle
quali Costantino Magno ornò poi la basilica di s. Pietro, e quella di s. Paolo, nella quale ancor si vedono con ammirazione. Eranvi ancora
delle statue di marmo e di metallo, con carri, cavalli, e quadrighe, e furono in tanta copia, che di sepolcro ridotta poi in fortezza in tempo di
Belisario, e di Narsete, le gettavano per difendersi da' nemici. Le ceneri di Adriano furono le prime, che si ponessero nel più alto, ed eminente
luogo di questo Mausoleo, entro una gran pina di metallo corintio; dipoi vi furono riposte le ceneri di tutti gli Antonini, che seguirono dopo
di lui. Ma dopo, come dicemmo, essendo mutato in fortezza, o castello mutò anche nome nel Pontificato di s. Gregorio Magno: poiché
nell'anno 593. essendo Roma afflitta colla peste, e rivoltato il santo Pontefice a placare l'ira di Dio colla penitenza, mentre processionalmente
portava l'immagine della ss. Vergine nel giorno di Pasqua di Resurrezione, all' avvicinarsi a questa mole, sentissi una voce invisibile, che disse
Regina Cali latare, alleluja, a cui il santo Pontefice attonito rispondendo con viva fede, Ora pro nobis Deum, alleluja, il Signore si compiacque,
che da quel punto principiasse a cessare la mortalità, e però in memoria, ed allusione di ciò fu posta sulla cima di quella mole; un Angelo
in atto di riporre la spada nel fodero; e dal medesimo Pontefice fu eretta una chiesa in onore del celeste Principe s. Michele Arcangelo,
non già quella, che sta su questa mole, ma quella, che fra poco vedremo presso la medesima mole; imperciocchè si crede universalmente,
che poi da Bonifazio III. o IV. sia stata eretta questa, che per la sua alta situazione fu detta inter nubes; ed il castello si dice s. Angelo.