Between July and the beginning of September, Castel Sant’Angelo (imperial mausoleum turned papal fortress turned museum) reopens its doors to the public after dark, remaining open until 1am. The visitor is entertained by concerts, shows and more, and guided tours are also available.
We’d been to this wonderful site before, but were keen to return and experience night-time opening – and the guided tour which would include the Passetto, the secret passageway between the Castle and the Vatican made famous by Angels and Demons.
Once inside, our tour – an active workout of steps and ramps for 9pm – took us from the Passetto to the bastions and, once inside, to just some of the beautifully decorated rooms including the Sala Paolina and a papal prison cell.
A walk around the bastions clearly showed just how this burial place of Emperor Hadrian had been transformed .. the round mausoleum built for his death in AD 138 to rival that of Augustus had been built up by successive Popes (most notably perhaps by the Borgia Pope Alexander VI), and used as a prison and a fortress when the Vatican was threatened.
Photography in the dark was a bit of a challenge, but it’s just about possible to see “the join” here between the Imperial tomb structure and the more modern castle…
The mausoleum was itself looted and almost destroyed following the fall of Rome in the 5th Century, but it seems to have been transformed into a military fortress even at that point. Later, it would be transformed into a papal fortress, with the Passetto having been built to link it with St Peter’s during the time of Pope Nicholas III in the 13th Century. Signs of its military use are not hard to find.
The Passetto consists of two levels, both leading to St Peter’s. The upper level – visible from the street below – would have been used by soldiers, while the Pope himself would have used the covered level shown below. Our guide was confident – even though there were little window slits – this passageway would have remained truly secret. Visitors can explore a good part of both passageways during the night-time visits – although we were asked to not stray into Vatican territory.
Back inside, we were told of the Bridge of Angels’ more sinister past: it was used to lead people to their deaths: criminals were led across the bridge to a scaffold, but were blessed by the Pope from this loggia below.
Many of those prisoners would have been housed in the dungeons, but other more important prisoners (including perhaps Caterina Sforza who was a notable inmate) may have been treated to more salubrious surroundings.
And there’s a nod to the archangel Michael who gives the Castel its name and stands guard on the roof…
With a concert playing in the background, this was a unique addition to our trip and a great place to explore after dark!