Castel Sant'Angelo ☆☆

Castel Sant'Angelo, Rome, Italy (Photo by Ben Cremin)

The Pope's private castle and personal stronghold in times of trouble, and a museum of arms and armor in times of peace

By the AD 2nd century, the Imperial tomb that Augustus had built along the Tiber was nearly full of emperors and their families.

The Emperor Hadrian decided to start over and build himself a grand new tomb across the riveraround AD 120. Every emperor from Hadrian himself down to Septimius Severus was interred inside.

Today, you enter the site via the ancient mausoleum deep in its heart. You then follow a sloping, curving corridor that slowly brings you into the fortress that, in later centuries, was built in top of the tomb.

From tomb to fortress

The tomb was a massive round structure, which it turned out made a great base for fortifications, and by the Middle Ages the tomb had gradually become Rome's greatest castle, and eventually, the papal military stronghold.

This massive brick cylinder is connected to the Vatican by a raised viaduct called the passetto, a tunnel once used by troops and the pope to spirit back and forth in secrecy and safety. (You can now visit this on the €5 ($6) for "Il Castello Segreto tour," which also visits other sections like the historic prison at 10am and 4pm in English, 11am and 5pm in Italian.)

Although it got its name in 590 when St. Gregory the Great had a vision of an angel sheathing its sword atop the ramparts to predict the end to a plague sweeping the city, the castle's most colorful episode occurred in 1527.

Cowardly pope; brave artist—The invasion of 1527

The pope and the German emperor were at war.

When Charles V's imperial troops entered Rome and began to sack the city, Medici pope Clement VII hitched up his robes and scurried down that passetto viaduct to the safety of Castel Sant'Angelo—leaving three-quarters of his elite Swiss Guards behind to die covering his escape. 

Defending the Castle 
"I seized one of the fuses and lined up some heavy pieces of artillery and falconets... firing them where I saw the need. In this way I slaughtered a great number of the enemy.... I continued firing, with an accompaniment of blessings and cheers from a number of cardinals and noblemen.... Anyhow, all I need say is that it was through me that the castle was saved that morning."
—Benvenuto Cellini, on defending Castel Sant'Angelo

Benvenuto Cellini, Florentine goldsmith, talented sculptor, and insufferable braggart, happened to be on hand and wrote about the ensuing battle in his swashbucklingly entertaining Autobiography (see sidebar for an excerpt).

If he's to be believed, Cellini single-handedly saved the pope, castle, and indeed the city of Rome itself that day, taking control of the cannon and firing away when he saw that the Roman bombardiers, fearful they might hit their own homes, were cowering and sobbing.

Castel Sant'Angelo as modern museum

Today the castle is a museum, and you enter through Hadrian's tomb itself to climb the original, 2nd-century brick-walled spiraling ramp. The ramp becomes a stair and then a catwalk as it passes through the travertine pocket of Hadrian's burial chamber.

The castle is slowly being transformed into a space for temporary exhibitions, so the layout is a bit muddled as they move the old, more permanent exhibits around.

There are lots of good views of the Tiber and the statue-lined Ponte Sant'Angelo from the ramparts.

The eclectic collections tucked away in rooms throughout the complex range from an AD 2nd-century bust of Hadrian and 16th-century ceiling frescoes of the emperor's exploits to majolica dating back to the 1300s, a 17th-century painting of a Bacchanale by Poussin, stacks of stone cannonballs, and even an enormous wooden crossbow that fired javelins.

Also still here are several rooms filled with arms and armor ranging from 6th-century BC Etruscan gladiator's helmets to an officer's uniform of 1900, with some deadly swords, daggers, spears, guns, pikes, halberds, and the likes in between. Be on the lookout for the pair of enormous, 16th-century inlaid ivory-handled revolvers.

Unfortunately, the bulk of the collections that once made up this impressive military museum has found its way to semi-permanent retirement in a basement storeroom to free up more temporary exhibition space in the castle.

Photo gallery
  • , Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Ben Cremin)
  • , Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Ricardo André Frantz)
  • A model of Hadrian
  • The exterior of the Mausoleum of Hadrian, Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Carole Raddato)
  • Ramp to Hadrian
  • Mausoleum of Hadrian, Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Carole Raddato)
  • The tomb room of Hadrian
  • Cannonballs, Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Mac9)
  • A catapult in the courtyard, Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Chris 73)
  • The Sala Paolina, Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Karelj)
  • A frescoed corridor in the papal apartments, Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Matthias Kabel)
  • The bronze angle of St. Michael the Archangel atop the castle, Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Jorge Valenzuela A)
  • The frescoed ceiling in the library, Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Matthias Kabel)
  • A view of Ponte Sant
  • The passetto (private papal passage) between Castel Sant
  • Dawn at the castle, Castel Sant'Angelo, Italy (Photo by Ade Russell)
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Free or reduced admission with a sightseeing card

Get into Castel Sant'Angelo for free (and skip the line at the ticket booth) with:

» more on discounts & passes
How long does Castel Sant'Angelo take?

The castle takes a least an hour to wander through—more like 90 minutes, especially as it's nice just to sit on the battlements and drink in the city panoramas.

Also, there's a pleasant little cafe with outdoor tables up on one of the ramparts.

Useful Italian phrases

Useful Italian for sightseeing

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
Where is?... Dov'é doh-VAY
...the museum il museo eel moo-ZAY-yo
...the church la chiesa lah key-YAY-zah
...the cathedral il duomo [or] la cattedrale eel DUO-mo [or] lah cah-the-DRAH-leh
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
Closed day giorno di riposo JOR-no dee ree-PO-zo
Weekdays (Mon-Sat) feriali fair-ee-YA-lee
Sunday & holidays festivi fe-STEE-vee
ticket biglietto beel-YET-toh
two adults due adulti DOO-way ah-DOOL-tee
one child un bambino oon bahm-BEE-no
one student uno studente OO-noh stu-DENT-ay
one senior un pensionato oon pen-see-yo-NAH-toh

Basic phrases in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) pro-nun-see-YAY-shun
thank you grazie GRAT-tzee-yay
please per favore pair fa-VOHR-ray
yes si see
no no no
Do you speak English? Parla Inglese? PAR-la een-GLAY-zay
I don't understand Non capisco non ka-PEESK-koh
I'm sorry Mi dispiace mee dees-pee-YAT-chay
How much is it? Quanto costa? KWAN-toh COST-ah
That's too much É troppo ay TROH-po
Good day Buon giorno bwohn JOUR-noh
Good evening Buona sera BWOH-nah SAIR-rah
Good night Buona notte BWOH-nah NOTE-tay
Goodbye Arrivederci ah-ree-vah-DAIR-chee
Excuse me (to get attention) Scusi SKOO-zee
Excuse me (to get past someone) Permesso pair-MEH-so
Where is? Dov'é doh-VAY
...the bathroom il bagno eel BHAN-yoh
...train station la ferroviaria lah fair-o-vee-YAR-ree-yah
to the right à destra ah DEH-strah
to the left à sinistra ah see-NEEST-trah
straight ahead avanti [or] diritto ah-VAHN-tee [or] dee-REE-toh
information informazione in-for-ma-tzee-OH-nay

Days, months, and other calendar items in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
When is it open? Quando é aperto? KWAN-doh ay ah-PAIR-toh
When does it close? Quando si chiude? KWAN-doh see key-YOU-day
At what time... a che ora a kay O-rah
Yesterday ieri ee-YAIR-ee
Today oggi OH-jee
Tomorrow domani doh-MAHN-nee
Day after tomorrow dopo domani DOH-poh doh-MAHN-nee
a day un giorno oon je-YOR-no
Monday Lunedí loo-nay-DEE
Tuesday Martedí mar-tay-DEE
Wednesday Mercoledí mair-coh-lay-DEE
Thursday Giovedí jo-vay-DEE
Friday Venerdí ven-nair-DEE
Saturday Sabato SAH-baa-toh
Sunday Domenica doh-MEN-nee-ka
Mon-Sat Feriali fair-ee-YAHL-ee
Sun & holidays Festivi feh-STEE-vee
Daily Giornaliere joor-nahl-ee-YAIR-eh
a month una mese oon-ah MAY-zay
January gennaio jen-NAI-yo
February febbraio feh-BRI-yo
March marzo MAR-tzoh
April aprile ah-PREEL-ay
May maggio MAH-jee-oh
June giugno JEW-nyoh
July luglio LOO-lyoh
August agosto ah-GO-sto
September settembre set-TEM-bray
October ottobre oh-TOE-bray
November novembre no-VEM-bray
December dicembre de-CHEM-bray

Numbers in Italian

English (inglese) Italian (italiano) Pro-nun-cee-YAY-shun
1 uno OO-no
2 due DOO-way
3 tre tray
4 quattro KWAH-troh
5 cinque CHEEN-kway
6 sei say
7 sette SET-tay
8 otto OH-toh
9 nove NO-vay
10 dieci dee-YAY-chee
11 undici OON-dee-chee
12 dodici DOH-dee-chee
13 tredici TRAY-dee-chee
14 quattordici kwa-TOR-dee-chee
15 quindici KWEEN-dee-chee
16 sedici SAY-dee-chee
17 diciasette dee-chee-ya-SET-tay
18 diciotto dee-CHO-toh
19 diciannove dee-chee-ya-NO-vay
20 venti VENT-tee
21* vent'uno* vent-OO-no
22* venti due* VENT-tee DOO-way
23* venti tre* VENT-tee TRAY
30 trenta TRAYN-tah
40 quaranta kwa-RAHN-tah
50 cinquanta cheen-KWAN-tah
60 sessanta say-SAHN-tah
70 settanta seh-TAHN-tah
80 ottanta oh-TAHN-tah
90 novanta no-VAHN-tah
100 cento CHEN-toh
1,000 mille MEEL-lay
5,000 cinque milla CHEEN-kway MEEL-lah
10,000 dieci milla dee-YAY-chee MEEL-lah

* You can use this formula for all Italian ten-place numbers—so 31 is trent'uno, 32 is trenta due, 33 is trenta tre, etc. Note that—like uno (one), otto (eight) also starts with a vowel—all "-8" numbers are also abbreviated (vent'otto, trent'otto, etc.).