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Castel Sant'Angelo history: Evolution from Hadrian's Mausoleum to modern-day museum

Built around 139 AD as Emperor Hadrian's mausoleum, Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome has played numerous historical roles over centuries, serving as a fortress in 401, a papal residence in the 14th century, and a prison before becoming a museum in 1901.

Castel Sant’Angelo timeline

135 AD: Construction of the building started under the Roman Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family, originally named "Hadrian's Mole".

139 AD: Construction of Hadrian's Mausoleum is completed under Emperor Antoninus Pius, Hadrian's successor.

403-409 AD: The building is incorporated into the Aurelian Walls, a defensive barrier around Rome.

590 AD: During the plague, Pope Gregory I had a vision of the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword on top of the castle, interpreting it as a sign of the end of the plague, thus the name "Castel Sant'Angelo" (Castle of the Holy Angel).

600 AD: The castle is used as a fortress and castle by the Popes. Pope Nicholas III moved his residence there, and it was connected to St. Peter's Basilica through the Passetto di Borgo.

1527 AD: During the Sack of Rome, Pope Clement VII uses the castle as a refuge.

1901 AD: The Italian state takes ownership of Castel Sant'Angelo, and it's opened to the public as a museum.

Castel Sant’Angelo history explained

Mausoleum of Hadrian
Transformation into a Fortress

Transformation into a fortress

500 - 590 AD

Due to the shifting political and security needs of Rome during a tumultuous period of decline and invasions, the mausoleum was converted into a military fortress. Emperor Honorius played a pivotal role in incorporating the building into Aurelian Walls, strengthening Rome's defenses. This fortified structure, later known as Castellum Crescentii in the Middle Ages, successfully protected the Vatican from the Vandals of Genseric's plundering in 455 AD. In the early 6th century, Theodoric repurposed the building, turning it into a state prison.

Papal Residence and Prison - Castel Sant'Angelo

Papal residence and prison

590 - 1527 AD

In 590 AD, during a plague, Pope Gregory I had a vision of the archangel Michael sheathing his sword over the castle, symbolizing the plague's end. This vision led to the castle being named Castel Sant'Angelo. Throughout the Middle Ages, it served as a sanctuary for popes, reachable from the Lateran through a secure passage. Popes transformed it into a residence and refuge, fortifying it against external threats. It was also used as a prison for political prisoners. The most famous prisoner was the Italian adventurer Benvenuto Cellini.

Renaissance and Baroque Additions

Renaissance and Baroque additions

1492 - 1789

In the 16th century, under Pope Paul III, the castle underwent significant renovations. Antonio da Sangallo the Younger added a cylindrical bastion, and later architects including Michelangelo, Giacomo Della Porta, and Bernini made additional modifications, such as the Passetto di Borgo, a secret passage connecting the Vatican to the castle.

Modern Use and Museum

Construction of Castel Sant'Angelo

Construction of Castel Sant'Angelo

The Castel Sant'Angelo, originally known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, was constructed between 123 and 139 AD. The project was led by the architect Demetriano, under the orders of Emperor Hadrian. 

The architectural style was inspired by the Mausoleum of Augustus but with larger dimensions. The original structure featured decorated a cylindrical edifice, with a garden and a golden quadriga (a chariot drawn by four horses side by side) at the top. The cylindrical design is an echo of Etruscan tumuli and combines elements from different architectural backgrounds. The exterior of the mausoleum was lined with marble. At the top, where the statue of the archangel now stands, there was likely a bronze statue of Emperor Hadrian depicted as a sun god. The monument was surrounded by statues, the most intact of which is the famous Barberini Faun. The construction of this iconic structure represents a significant period in Roman architectural history.

Interesting facts on Castel Sant'Angelo history

  • Hidden Treasure: Legend has it that Emperor Hadrian's tomb once housed a great treasure. This was looted during the sack of Rome by the Visigoths in 410 AD.
  • Angel on Top: The angel that stands on top of Castel Sant'Angelo today is not the original. Over the years, several statues have stood there. The current bronze angel, made by the Flemish artist Peter Anton von Verschaffelt, was installed in 1753.
  • A Popes' Safe House: The Castle was connected to the Vatican through an 800 meters long passageway known as "Passetto di Borgo". This corridor was used by Popes as an escape route in times of danger. Pope Clement VII used it to escape during the Sack of Rome in 1527.
  • Papal Prison: Notable prisoners include Giordano Bruno, an Italian Dominican friar, philosopher, mathematician, and poet, who was imprisoned here before being executed for heresy in 1600.

Castel Sant'Angelo today 

Today, Castel Sant’Angelo provides a tangible connection to Rome’s past, from its origins as Emperor Hadrian's tomb, through its transformation into a fortified castle and papal residence, to its modern role as a museum. A must-visit attraction, Castel Sant’Angelo history offers a captivating journey through the various architectural styles and historical periods of Rome. The panoramic views from its terrace, overlooking Rome and the Vatican, are unmatched. Furthermore, its artistic treasures, ranging from Roman antiquities to Renaissance-era paintings, offer invaluable insights into the city’s rich cultural heritage. Its diversity and historical significance make it a captivating visit for any traveler.




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Frequently asked questions about the Castel Sant’Angelo history

What's the historical significance of Castel Sant'Angelo?

The history of Castel Sant'Angelo is significant in reflecting the diverse historical phases of Rome, from the imperial age to the Middle Ages, and from the Renaissance to modern times. Initially a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, it later served as a fortress and castle, and then became a prison and place of execution. Today, it is a museum and a testament to the city's rich history.

How old is the Castel Sant'Angelo?

Castel Sant'Angelo, also known as the Mausoleum of Hadrian, was initially constructed between 134–139 AD, making it over 1880 years old as of 2023.

How many years did it take to build Castel Sant'Angelo?

The initial construction of Castel Sant'Angelo, when it was still the Mausoleum of Hadrian, took about five years from 134–139 AD. However, the structure underwent several renovations and additions over the centuries, extending its construction period.

What is the historical context in which Castel Sant'Angelo was created?

The Castel Sant'Angelo was created during the reign of Emperor Hadrian, a time of relative peace and prosperity in the Roman Empire known as the Pax Romana. It was initially built as a mausoleum for Hadrian and his family, indicating the grandeur and opulence of imperial Rome at the time.

Who built the Castel Sant'Angelo?

The Castel Sant'Angelo was initially built under the orders of Emperor Hadrian as a mausoleum for himself and his family. The original structure was designed by the architect Demetriano.

What is the architectural style of Castel Sant'Angelo?

The Castel Sant'Angelo exhibits a mix of architectural styles due to its long history of construction, alteration, and use. Its core structure, the Mausoleum of Hadrian, was built in the Roman architectural style with a cylindrical form, while later modifications added elements of medieval military architecture, Renaissance features, and Baroque elements.

What events have shaped the history of Castel Sant'Angelo?

Numerous significant events have shaped the history of Castel Sant'Angelo. It has served as a mausoleum, a military fortress, a papal residence, and a prison. One of the most famous incidents was in 590 AD when Pope Gregory the Great saw a vision of the Archangel Michael sheathing his sword atop the castle, signifying the end of a plague, leading to its present name.

How has Castel Sant'Angelo contributed to the city’s cultural heritage?

Castel Sant'Angelo has significantly contributed to Rome's cultural heritage as a prominent symbol of the city's history and evolution. Its architectural style, historical use, and the many stories it holds contribute to the rich tapestry of Rome's history. As a museum, it provides insights into Rome's past for both residents and tourists.

What are some lesser-known historical facts about Castel Sant'Angelo?

Some lesser-known facts about Castel Sant'Angelo include its use as a hiding place for Popes during sieges due to a secret passage called Passetto di Borgo connecting it to Vatican City. The castle also contains a historical prison where many notable prisoners were held, including the sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini.

Are there guided tours explaining the history of Castel Sant'Angelo?

Yes, there are guided tours available that offer a comprehensive explanation of the history of Castel Sant'Angelo. These tours often include insights into the architectural styles, historical events associated with the castle, and stories about its famous inhabitants. It is recommended to book guided tours online for seamless access to the castle at the time of visit.