Rome’s layered history — the Castel Sant’Angelo

A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris at the Castel Sant’Angelo (Mausoleum of Hadrian), 139 C.E., Rome

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’re high up on the Castel Sant’Angelo in the middle of Rome, built as a mausoleum for the emperor Hadrian, looking out over the rooftops of the city. From here we can see modern buildings, Baroque buildings, Renaissance buildings.

[0:18] For instance, we can see the dome designed by Michelangelo for St. Peter’s Basilica, and if we look closely, you can even make out that great dome belonging to the ancient temple, the Pantheon, also probably built by the emperor Hadrian. That’s the story of Rome. It’s a city of layers, and it’s also the story of this building.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:41] This building looks like a ruin, and yet it’s not. It’s nearly 2,000 years old. New uses were continually found, and because of that, we still have it today. Not only has it served as a mausoleum, but it served as a fortress, a prison, a refuge for popes, papal apartments, and it was even the site of a miracle.

Dr. Zucker: [1:03] When we look at the building now, it looks very different from what it looked like originally. Now, we believe that it originally had a square base and then a round barrel that rose up from that. There may have been a colonnade and there may have been a circle of cypress trees.

[1:19] Then above that, there would have originally been a temple. Then, at the very top, perhaps a large gilded sculpture of the emperor Hadrian.

Dr. Harris: [1:28] The closer to the top we get, the more unsure we are of what the original mausoleum looked like. Hadrian built his mausoleum to intentionally recall the great funerary monument of Augustus, which is just across the river. But Hadrian’s was even more beautifully decorated with marble, with travertine, with sculptures.

[1:50] Like so many ancient buildings in Rome, the Castel Sant’Angelo was robbed of its decorative marbles, its sculpture, fragments. Spolia from this building were reused elsewhere across the city. So Hadrian dies in 138. A year later, he’s deified by the senate, and we have to imagine his remains being processed through this monument.

Dr. Zucker: [2:14] The emperor’s ashes would’ve been placed in an urn in the very center of the structure, reached by a spiral ramp, and was illuminated by two shafts that allowed light in through enormously thick walls.

Dr. Harris: [2:27] With Hadrian, we’re in the early 2nd century. Christianity is a fledgling religion at this point, but by the early 300s, the emperor Constantine decriminalizes Christianity, and by the end of that century, Christianity will become the official religion of the Roman Empire, but we begin to see the dissolution in the early 400s of the Roman Empire itself.

[2:53] And then this building begins to serve a very different role.

Dr. Zucker: [2:58] Over centuries, it becomes more and more fortified. It becomes a defensive position. Rome is, in fact, attacked, first by the Visigoths in 410, then by the Ostrogoths in the middle of the 6th century. During the winter of 589-590, the Tiber river, which flows just in front of the mausoleum of Hadrian, flooded.

[3:17] This was followed by plague. Pope Gregory ordered three days of procession. The icon of the Virgin and Child from Santa Maria Maggiore was paraded through the city.

Dr. Harris: [3:29] When they got to the bridge, Pope Gregory looked up to the top of the mausoleum and saw a vision of St. Michael, wiping his sword and sheathing it. Pope Gregory understood this as a sign of the end of the plague, and in fact, that’s exactly — according to these accounts — what happened.

[3:47] Soon after the miracle occurred, a church was built on top of the mausoleum, on the site where St. Michael had been seen, and since then, the mausoleum has been known as the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Dr. Zucker: [3:59] And so a pagan building became Christian.

Dr. Harris: [4:01] The Castle of the Holy Angel. It’s important to see this building in relationship to the Basilica of St. Peter’s.

Dr. Zucker: [4:11] Well, the location is ideal to protect the Vatican and, in fact, walls were built to enclose both.

Dr. Harris: [4:17] What I find most fascinating is the covered, protected passageway that was built between the Basilica of St. Peter’s and the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Dr. Zucker: [4:26] On at least two occasions, a pope in the Vatican had to flee and was able to make his way along this passage to the safety of Castel Sant’Angelo.

Dr. Harris: [4:35] This most famously happened in 1527, when the city of Rome was sacked by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, but just before the sack of Rome, Renaissance artists made the discovery of the remains of the Golden House of Nero, which by the time of the Renaissance was located way underground.

Dr. Zucker: [4:56] When these underground chambers were discovered, artists, including Raphael, began to explore them. What they found were spectacular ancient frescoes, what we’ve come to know as grotesques.

Dr. Harris: [5:08] We see these forms decorating rooms in the Castel Sant’Angelo.

Dr. Zucker: [5:12] And so if the grotesques are a wonderful expression of the impact of the Renaissance on the Castel Sant’Angelo, then the Baroque is best exemplified by the sculptures on the bridge that lead to the monument.

Dr. Harris: [5:23] More than a hundred years after Raphael, Bernini was commissioned to sculpt angels carrying the instruments of the Passion, and so the bridge became known as the Ponte Sant’Angelo, the Bridge of Angels.

[5:36] This is today a beautiful approach to the Castel Sant’Angelo, where we look up and at the very top see a later 18th century sculpture of St. Michael sheathing his sword.

Dr. Zucker: [5:48] Fast-forward to the 19th century, the nation of Italy is created, and the monument becomes the property of the state of Italy. In the early 20th century, it becomes a museum, and modern conservation efforts are begun. This is such a complicated building. It’s a synthesis, like the city itself.

Dr. Harris: [6:05] Today, you can come and visit and walk its circumference and come up to the rooftop and have this amazing view of the city and enjoy a cup of espresso.

[6:15] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Rome’s layered history — the Castel Sant’Angelo," in Smarthistory, July 23, 2020, accessed July 15, 2024,