Castel Sant'Angelo, situated just in front of the IES Abroad Rome Center, has always been a mixture of military might and culture. Initially built as a mausoleum for the Roman emperor Hadrian, over the centuries Castel S. Angelo was used as a papal fortress and a prison before becoming a state museum. Castel Sant’Angelo is also known as the final location of Professor Langdon’s Path of Illumination in Dan Brown’s “Angels & Demons”.
Our students had the unique opportunity of walking along the secret Passetto di Borgo, the fortified passage that connected the Papal apartments in the Vatican to the castle fortress. In 1527, when Charles V's imperial troops entered Rome and began to sack the city, Pope Clement VII hitched up his robes and scurried down that passetto to the safety of Castel Sant'Angelo, leaving three-quarters of his elite Swiss Guards behind to die covering his escape.
After the Passetto di Borgo, students were led into the mysterious underground prisons in the castle. Before becoming a luxurious home for Popes, Castel Sant’Angelo was first a military stronghold and a prison.
Legends say that in 590, while the city was afflicted by a horrible plague, the Archangel Michael appeared on top of the mausoleum, sheathing his sword as a sign that pre-announced the end of the plague. This legend is where the current name of the mausoleum originated from, and is also why a statue of Archangel Michael bearing his sword now surmounts the castle.
An expert historian of the fortress explained that the different levels of the structure were designated to different kinds of prisoners. The ground floor, for example, was destined to high-profile personalities, such as the famous Benvenuto Cellini, accused of stealing some of the papal treasure during the Sack of Rome. Even more famous is Cellini’s escape attempt, which ended up in a broken leg and in him getting secluded into the prison vaults. We were able to visit Cellini’s cell and see what remains of a drawing of a resurrected Christ that he scratched on the walls. The cells are bare, gloomy, and narrow, and include instruments of torture, including a nailed collar, handcuffs, and chains.
“Very cool experience to walk on the Vatican walls because we walk past this great monument every day!”, said Rachel Vullo, an IES Abroad Rome student. Another student, Samantha Flores, said, “The visit to the castle was very special for me because I had the chance to see a restricted area.”
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