Exploring the Mausoleum of Adriano: The history and metamorphosis of Castel Sant’Angelo

Exploring the Mausoleum of Adriano: The history and metamorphosis of Castel Sant’Angelo

mausoleo di adriano
mausoleo di adriano

From its origins as a tomb to its incarnations as a castle, prison, papal residence, and now a museum, the Mausoleum of Adriano’s history is as varied as it is rich. This is evidenced by its numerous appellations – Mole Adrianorum, Castellum Crescentii, and Castel Sant’Angelo – and the diverse architectural changes still observable today, which mark both the interior and exterior of the structure. These varied roles underscore not just the iconic status but also the deep historical importance of this emblematic monument to Rome.
Situated along the right bank of the Tevere River, just steps away from the Vaticano, Castel Sant’Angelo is an essential visit for tourists and art lovers globally.
This guide offers a succinct journey through the pivotal chapters in its history, from inception to modern times, allowing us to fully honor its historic and artistic significance.

The inception of the Mausoleum: A tribute to Adriano

Named after its founder, Emperor Adriano (76-138 AD), the Mausoleum of Adriano reflects the emperor’s legacy. Initiated around 123 AD and completed in 139 AD, a year posthumously, it was designed to enshrine his remains and commemorate his rule. Originally, its structure was influenced by the grand tomb of Augusto, Adriano’s predecessor, mirroring the three superimposed architectural bodies of decreasing size – a square base topped by a cylindrical drum and culminating in a turret featuring a statue of the god Elio in his chariot.
Adorned with marble and accented by statues along its summit, the monument also featured a lush rooftop garden connecting the turret to the levels below.
Today, remnants of its grandeur persist in the foundations, the cylindrical core, the entryway, and the spiraling ramp leading to the Sala delle Urne, where Adriano’s ashes were placed.

The Mausoleum is accessed via the Pons Aelius, the Ponte Elio, later modified into the current Ponte Sant’Angelo, flanked by Bernini’s majestic sculptures, a bridge originally constructed to link the tomb with the heart of the city. Nestled in what was the Ager Vaticanus, a once peripheral zone of Rome adorned with gardens and villas, the Mausoleum’s location at the edge of Rome’s ancient nucleus catalyzed its first metamorphosis from a monument into a fortress.

mausoleo di augusto roma
Mausoleo di Augusto, Rome

From Mausoleum to fortress: The rise of Castel Sant’Angelo

The Mausoleum originally served as the final resting place for Emperor Adriano and most of his successors until the death of Caracalla in 217 AD, marking the last imperial burial within its walls. Subsequently, the structure, known as the Adrianeum, underwent various transformations. The earliest significant change occurred in 271 AD when Emperor Aureliano integrated it into the city’s defensive ramparts. Invaders from the north were met with an elaborate defense system comprising the lengthy city walls, the Tevere River, and the Mausoleum itself, now repurposed as a bastion. Despite its strategic importance, the structure suffered looting and sieges, notably by the Goths during the 5thand 6th centuries. As time progressed, the monument also became known as Castellum. According to legend, it was at the end of the 6th century that it would take its enduring name, Castel Sant’Angelo.

The naming of Castel Sant’Angelo

The name Castel Sant’Angelo traces back to a divine intervention during the plague of 590, when Pope Gregorio Magno, amid a penitential procession, witnessed the Archangel Michele sheathing his sword above the castle, signaling the plague’s cessation. This vision led to the structure being named Castel Sant’Angelo, later commemorated by a devotional chapel and a marble statue of the Archangel atop the building.

Castel Sant’Angelo in the Middle Ages: From prison to papal residence

The towering stature of Castel Sant’Angelo, its strategic defensive position, and proximity to San Pietro made it a coveted asset among Rome’s noble families. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was the prize in a tug-of-war between dynasties, each altering its use to suit their agenda. Initially a prison, where Pope Giovanni X met a grim end in 928, it subsequently became an aristocratic residence. Around the year 1000, it was known as “Torre Crescenzi,” named for the family that transformed the ancient turret into a watchtower.

The 1200s saw the Mausoleum fall under Orfini control, an influential family that included Pope Nicolò III, who fortified it as a safeguard for the Vaticano. The Orfini are credited with constructing the Passetto di Borgo, the elevated passageway linking the Castle directly to the Vaticano.
The intertwined fates of the Castle and the Church persisted through the Avignon Papacy (1305-1379), a period when the papal court relocated to France. In 1367, Pope Urbano V reclaimed the keys to Castel Sant’Angelo as a stipulation for moving the papal seat back to Rome.
Nevertheless, the palace wasn’t shielded from conflict; in 1379, it was nearly destroyed during a violent uprising. Restoration efforts commenced under Pope Bonifacio IX (pope from 1389 to 1404) and continued with Nicolò V, who initiated the construction of the four angular bastions, with successive popes maintaining the Castle throughout the Renaissance and Baroque eras. It was during these times that Castel Sant’Angelo flourished anew, serving both as fortress and a residence. 

Castel Sant'Angelo roma
Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome

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The Renaissance and the Baroque architectural transformations

Castel Sant’Angelo’s transition to a papal residence heralded a wave of architectural enhancements that bolstered its military presence, visual appeal, and interior comfort. Noteworthy projects included: 

  • Giulio II della Rovere (1505-1513), commissioned Giuliano da Sangallo and Bramante to construct the river-facing loggia; 
  • Leone X (1515-1521): renovated the SS. Cosma and Damiano chapel, reimagined by Michelangelo;
  • Clemente VII Medici (1523-1534): during the Sacco di Roma in 1527, became a refuge for the papal court, prompting the pontiff to expand his private quarters with decor by Giulio Romano and commissioning the elegant wall decorations of the Stufetta, a private heated bath. 

Enhancements persisted into Clemente IX’s papacy (1667-1669), who assigned Bernini and his workshop the task of crafting the angelic statues adorning the bridge’s sides. Benedetto XIV (1740-1758) is credited with finalizing the Mausoleum of Aureliano with the Angel, crafted by Verschaffelt, a piece still on display today. As centuries passed, the fortress’s defensive role waned, even with its ample cache of weaponry, until the Napoleonic occupation of the 18th century.

From prison to National Museum

The Napoleonic era left indelible scars on the Castle, which, post-French retreat in 1799, found itself bereft of munitions, artillery, furnishings, and essential water supply infrastructure, all seized by the foreign forces. The fortress continued to function solely as a high-security prison and barracks for defense troops.
The extensive damage incurred led to a significant restoration initiative starting in 1822, reviving the Castle’s ancient Roman grandeur. This restoration effort spanned the entire 20th century, pausing only during the world wars when the fortress safeguarded priceless artworks, including the bronze horses from the Basilica of San Marco in Venice, and sheltered many lives.
In 1925, Castel Sant’Angelo was designated a National Museum, now housing an extensive collection of Roman and Renaissance artifacts amassed through private donations and onsite discoveries. 

The Museum and its collections

An array of furnishings, ornamental items, and esteemed paintings, as well as ceramics, sculptures, and armaments, are showcased across the Museum’s varied halls. Visitors traverse through stark Roman spaces and lavishly adorned 16thcentury chambers, a sequence as captivating as it is complex. The tour culminates with the breathtaking panoramic view from the castle’s Giretto and the even more striking vista from the Terrazzo dell’Angelo, overseeing the city.

Guests are bound to cherish the artistic progressions, reflective of the rich history just recounted, alongside the Museum’s impressive art collections.Thus, there are countless reasons to personally experience this venerable monument: it’s wise to secure your admission ticket promptly!



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