Mausoleum of Hadrian Turned into Castel Sant’Angelo

Castel Sant'Angelo from the South by Caspar van Wittel. Oil on canvas.
Castel Sant’Angelo from the South by Caspar van Wittel. Oil on canvas.

When you are heading to the Vatican, you can’t avoid seeing an amazing ancient bridge (foot traffic only) decorated with angel sculptures, and a mighty, brown building of original architecture near it. The Castle of the Holy Angel in the center of Rome, Italy, started its history as a mausoleum of the Roman Emperor Hadrian in 139 AD. In 250 years, it became a castle when the young and rising power, the Christian Church, started to replace pagan Roman buildings with Christian ones.

Mausoleum of Hadrian, Rome, Italy. A reconstruction.
Mausoleum of Hadrian, Rome, Italy. A reconstruction.
A siege of the Castle Sant'Angelo 537-538. By Lodovico Pogliaghi, 1886.
A siege of the Castle Sant’Angelo 537-538. By Lodovico Pogliaghi, 1886.

Many of the mausoleum contents and decorations were lost during attacks on Rome by Barbarians. Defenders dropped parts of marble decorations of the mausoleum on the heads of attackers. So, the Emperor Hadrian stood up for his city even after his death. Simultaneously with the mausoleum, Hadrian built an amazing bridge facing straight onto the mausoleum, and called it, as you can guess, the Bridge of Hadrian. Today, it still stands there, but is called Ponte Sant’Angelo. I hope next time you are on that bridge, you will recall it is 1200 years old.

Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy.
Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, Italy.
An angel. Ponte Sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy.
An angel. Ponte Sant’Angelo, Rome, Italy.
An angel. Ponte Sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy.
The statue of the Archangel Michael at the top of Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy.
The statue of the Archangel Michael at the top of Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, Italy.

Castel Sant’Angelo was destined to witness the whole history of Christian Rome. For many hundreds of years, it was the most powerful building of the city and also the highest one: papal fortress, papal residence, and of course a prison. Unfortunately, despite such a rich history, we know few interesting facts about it. Let’s mention just two of them.

Giordano Bruno (1548-1600), the man who first said that the planet Earth is not the center of the world, has a round shape, and revolves around the sun, was imprisoned in this castle for six years before being burned at the stake.

If you like fine arts at all and jewelry in particular, the name of the second hero might be familiar to you. It is Benvenuto Cellini (1500-1571), an Italian goldsmith, sculptor, draftsman, musician, and even a soldier. He worked in Italy and France, and was so good in jewel crafting that the French king presented him with a castle in Paris. He also wrote an excellent book, his autobiography. Everyone who is interested in the history of European Renaissance should read it. The book is subjective, as every memoir is, but very alive, fascinating, and informative. Moreover, it reads like a detective story.

According to his book, Benvenuto Cellini defended the castle of Sant’Angelo when the Pope was hiding there during the attack on Rome by Charles III, Duke of Bourbon, in 1527. Cellini wrote that, firing from a cannon, he mortally wounded Philibert of Châlon, Prince of Orange, one of the commanders of the siege.

The Pope asked Benvenuto to take all the gemstones out of his gold tiara, melt down the gold, and save all these for better times. Later, Cellini was charged with embezzling the gems of the pope’s tiara, and imprisoned in the castle of Sant’Angelo. He didn’t admit to the charge. Instead, he sawed up the window’s iron bars and, one night, tied together old rags and descended from a window of the dungeon. The rag rope turned out to be too short and he was forced to jump, which resulted in a broken leg. Despite this, he climbed over the second wall of the castle and crawled to his friend’s house where he got help. Truly a brave man! He was only one who escaped from the castle in its history.

The largest ancient castle of Rome, Sant’Angelo, is a museum today, but there are few interesting things inside except the papal rooms with original furniture and frescoes of the 15-16th century. If you get to the highest floor, beautiful bird’s-eye views of Rome will be your prize.

Rome, Italy.
Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy.
Frescoes. Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy.
Frescoes. Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome, Italy.

After an extended visit of the castle, we wanted only one thing: to sit in a calm place and drink a glass of Prosecco to give our legs and backs some relief. Zigzagging along the small narrow streets of the center of Rome, we stumbled upon a small cafe/bar with a very modest interior. They had Prosecco and we ordered a bottle. We were alone there. Not one tourist, or even a local.

How surprised we were, when the young waiter brought not only wine, but a gigantic plate of bruschetta with different toppings – black truffle, white truffle (it’s always expensive), tomato, vegetables, beans, cured meat, cheese, and heaven knows what else. OK, no problem. We didn’t mind eating something, and were prepared to pay an enormous bill. Besides, the bottle had a gold wrapper.

The wine was excellent, the bruschetta was perfect, we were full and happy.

“The bill, please. What?! Just 20 Euro for the bottle of amazing cold Prosecco and a plate of yummy bruschetta? Are you sure?”

“Oh, the bruschetta was on the house.”

I adore Italy!

Bruschetta with tomatoes and olives.
Bruschetta with tomatoes and olives.
Bruschetta with black truffle.
Bruschetta with black truffle.
A set of Bruschetta.

If you have a local friend in any big city you are going to visit, you are lucky. He/she will show you all the secluded places and of course that tiny restaurant where you taste real homemade dishes for a reasonable price. But what if you don’t have such a friend? In that case, you can rely on good luck, or turn to Withlocals. This outfit will suggest you choose a local guide. I am sure that having a guide, you will get not only an interesting excursion, but also an excellent dinner in a family trattoria where some Italian grandmother or even grandfather will prepare genuine lasagne, pasta, tiramisu, bruschetta—you know the list—for you.

One more example. Probably you heard about the famous Caffè Florian on St Mark’s Square of Venice, Italy, where a tiny cup of black coffee costs as much as a small gold ring. Is it the best coffee in the world? No. Florian is the oldest working cafe in the world, yes, but the best coffee in my life, I got in a microscopic coffee shop (just 10 square meters) in Budva, Montenegro. That big cup of fantastic coffee only cost 50 cents.

More about Italy:

Giotto’s Campanile, Lotte Tower, Burj Khalifa, or Why Aerial Views are So Magnificent
What to Visit: Naples in Italy or Naples in Florida?
Museo Borghese, Roma: 100 percent Concentration of Beauty
Ferrari Museum: Golden Era of Schumi


35 thoughts on “Mausoleum of Hadrian Turned into Castel Sant’Angelo

  1. Thank you for your always fascinating and varied posts. Having been in many of the places you blog on, I read them with great interest. I was just in Rome again last year visited among other places Hadrian’s Tomb/Castel Sant’Angelo, the offices and armory of the Swiss Guard, and the Vatican’s remarkable mosaic workshop. The Swiss Guard and mosaic workshop are each worthy of a blog itself. Thanks again for your blogs and, of course, happy travels. Cheers, Rolf and Maral

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We’ve been there – actually came across it (as you say) when visiting the Vatican. Didn’t know at the time it had such a fascinating history.
    Isn’t it amazing the history in Italy. A 1200 year old bridge. When you really stop to think about it that’s pretty amazing.
    We’ll be in the Puglia area for a month starting at the end of January. We have a love/hate relationship with Italy. But look forward to going again.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post, Victor, thank you! Just started following your blog – hoping to learn some practical tips for travel – friend recommended your blog for this 🙂 Thanks for including the link “Withlocals” – looking for tips like this! Also love the history and art information shared “)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Welcome, Lara, and thank you for the comment.
      The idea of hiring local guides seems excellent. If you have a day or two for such city as Rome, you will see only touristy places like the Vatican or Collosseum. However, the spirit of the city “lives” in its tine streets, lines, and spots that you will hardly find without a locals, let alone the genuine good Italian cuisine.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’ve summed it up beautifully, Victor 🙂 I haven’t traveled abroad in a long time, but wanted to get the wheels starting that direction. For me, any travel is more about getting the feel for the place vs seeing the major tourist attractions; just being there, being present, and absorbing. Like a local, hopefully =) Looking forward to your posts!

        Liked by 1 person

        1. When I got an opportunity to travel, my wife and I were hungry. We tried to visit as many places as possible. Now, we are slow travelers. We stay in a chosen place as long as possible and explore it and everything around it. We savour every trip. And then, I write on it.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. That sounds perfect, Victor “) Exactly how I’d like to travel. Excited to follow your blog, learn about different places, and really see how you both plan trips out. Creating travel can be so complicated; glad for the guidance =)

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  4. When I was thinking of going to Rome last year (which didn’t happen) the images of Castel Sant’Angelo bathed in the morning/afternoon sun were among the photos of the Italian capital that caught my attention the most. Thanks for sharing some interesting information on its history. As to the small cafe where you had your Prosecco, I wonder what made you decide to go inside that particular venue and think “ok, I’ll go inside”. Clearly you had a wonderful experience there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. To be honest, nothing. We were just going along a street, and then, “Oh, a bar. Let’s relax there and have some drink?” Now, I don’t even remember this street.

      Any photographer in Rome feels himself as a fox in the henhouse. The city and its citizens are very photogenic. I wish you to realize your plan.

      Thank you for visiting.


  5. Thank you, as always, Victor. Despite several trips to Rome, it never occurred to me to learn if one could go IN the castle. Along with the Colosseum, it was one of my earliest visual associations with Rome, due to some school book, long ago, and I always enjoy standing on the bridge to enjoy that famous facade. Excellent stories. Congratulations on your mealtime discovery. Those are some of the happiest travel moments, wherever they happen.
    One doesn’t necessarily go to Florian’s for the coffee, although I have, but enjoyed the ambience and the historical context enough to make the cost worth the while. There’s a lot of excellent coffee in the world, and it would be difficult to say where I think it’s been the best.
    Happy new year. I look forward to what you’ll show and teach us in 2019.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Happy New Year, Bred! I wish you all the best in 2019!
      If you have never been inside the castle, you haven’t lost much. All the beauty is outside: the bridge and the facade. Judging by to the paint by Caspar van Wittel (the first image of the post), this place was beautiful always.
      Thank you for reading and commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. You have a gift for seamlessly weaving in your own impressions of the places you visit with the centuries of history that preceded you, Victor — like the tidbit that Hadrian continued to (at least metaphorically) defend his city after his death. And what a wonderful story too about the prosecco and the free bruschetta. Clearly, the Italians like you as much as you like them. 😉 Thank you for another wonderful vicarious visit.

    Liked by 1 person

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