A Castle, A Tomb, and A Symbol: Castel Sant’Angelo

Zach Smith is a student at University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa and an ISA Featured Blogger. He is studying abroad with ISA in Rome, Italy

As I stand atop the Castel Sant’Angelo and look out across Rome and the Tiber River, it is hard to ignore the immense feeling of power and awe swelling in my chest. The view is striking—St. Peter’s Basilica, massive, arched bridges, the seven hills of Rome decorating the distance—it is enough to make even the smallest man (or woman) feel indestructible. Untouchable. Powerful.

The Castel Sant’Angelo, also known as Hadrian’s Tomb or the Mausoleum of Hadrian, sits on the bank of the Tiber River beside the Vatican. At one point in time, a covered corridor was constructed in secret between the Castel and the Vatican to protect the Pope. This passage, named the Passetto di Borgo, is featured in both Dan Brown’s novel Angels & Demons and the second installment of the ever-popular Assassin’s Creed franchise. While the passage was built in 1227, the Castel Sant’Angelo was constructed around 123 AD by Emperor Hadrian. Since then, the Castle has served a multitude of purposes. It has been used as a mausoleum, fortress, shelter, prison, and even as a religious archive.

For just 15 Euro, anyone can tour the Castel and the museum it currently houses. Inside, artifacts spanning the centuries help to tell the multifaceted history of the impressive stone structure. The collection includes a variety of weapons, armor, and pieces of art—including a painting of the Virgin Mary by Roman artist Filippo Rusuti. It takes approximately two and a half hours to fully tour the Castel, but it is easy to spend additional time wandering behind the ancient walls.

As I write, I am sitting at a small table below a canopy of vines. Although it is late January and a bit cold, the view through the carved window it exquisite. In a way, the fortress is an excellent representation of the entire city. Both possess strong, impassable walls to protect their borders. Behind those walls exist an explosion of art, culture, and history that Romans are willing to defend at any cost. After all, these things are incredibly important—what is a society without art? Without culture? Without history?

Like the city, Castel Sant’Angelo receives plenty of visitors each year. It is also a cultural icon, partially due to its unique cylindrical shape and location. Just like with Rome, there is a strong connection between the building and religion—specifically with the Pope and the Catholic Church. When studying Roman history, it is often impossible to untangle politics from the Church. Emperors and Popes alike have lived in, fled to, and been laid to rest in the Castel. Inside, the ornately decorated walls and ceilings of several rooms mirror the paintings of popular basilicas and churches.

The Castel Sant’Angelo is a place of remarkable beauty and power, but it is also indicative of something greater. The fortress stands as a symbol of Rome, a reflection of culture and history, and a monument commemorating one of the world’s most powerful empires. If you have the time, I would recommend a visit.

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