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All images © by Roberto Piperno, owner of the domain. Write to romapip@quipo.it. Text edited by Rosamie Moore.
Page revised in February 2010.

Porta Castello (Book 1) (Map C2) (Day 8) (View C3) (Rione Borgo)

In this page:
 The plate by Giuseppe Vasi
 Today's view
 Castel Sant' Angelo
 Loggia di Paolo III
 Cappelle del Castello
 Borgo Pio

The Plate (No. 20)

Porta Castello was opened in the walls built by Pope Pius IV as a mere utility gate for the garrison of Castel Sant'Angelo and it was not embellished with inscriptions and coat of arms. For this reason the etching by Giuseppe Vasi pays little attention to Porta Castello and dedicates the view to showing groups of people enjoying a moment of leisure (for a detail of this plate click here); on a fine spring or autumn day, but not in summer when it was unhealthy to spend much time near the river, the Romans came to prati (meadows) di Castello to play and dance or just walk around. The Villas (with the exception of Villa Borghese) were not open to the public and so the open space north of Castel Sant'Angelo, was the public garden of Vasi's Rome.
The etching shows a small bridge in front of the gate; the section of the walls from Porta Angelica to Porta Castello was protected by a moat filled with water, which also surrounded the outer walls of Castel Sant'Angelo.
The view is taken from the green dot in the small 1748 map here below. In the description below the plate Vasi made reference to: 1) Castel Sant'Angelo; 2) Corridor leading to Palazzo Vaticano. 1) is shown also in another page: this page mainly deals with its fortifications and the northern side of the building. The small map shows also: 3) Porta Castello; 4) Borgo Pio.


The view in February 2010

Today it is not possible to place oneself at the exact location from which Vasi took his view because the area of prati di Castello was developed in the late XIXth century. In 1921 the new development became Prati, a new rione of Rome and in the 1930s Porta Castello and the walls from there to Porta Angelica were pulled down; the level of the ground was raised and today the external walls of Castel Sant'Angelo are almost at the same level as the modern street which surrounds them.

Castel Sant' Angelo

View of the eastern side with Bastione S. Luca in the foreground

The fortifications of Castel Sant'Angelo towards the river were modified in the late XIXth century to make room for lungotevere, the street along the Tiber; those inland have been less affected by changes; Bastione S. Luca was built by Pope Alexander VI and it was just slightly modified in the positioning of cannon by Pope Pius IV and by Pope Urban VIII; the moat was filled with water, but after Pope Pius IV built a new curtain of walls its space was used for warehouses and barracks.

(left) The moat and Bastione S. Marco; (right) Bastione S. Maria, a bastion of the external walls

Bastione S. Marco was also built by Pope Alexander VI, but it was more substantially modified by Pope Pius IV: below the battlements and near the ground level it has openings for firing on the enemy (the image used as background for this page shows a detail of its sentry box).
The external walls built by Pope Pius IV had a pentagonal shape: the two bastions along the river have been pulled down, while the three bastions inland remain, although they no longer appear as imposing as they were because of the level change of the surrounding ground. In line with the state-of-the-art military architecture of the time the bastions had the shape of an arrow.

(left) Execution courtyard; (right) cannon balls and inscription indicating their weight

In the final scene of Tosca, an opera by Gioacchino Puccini based on a drama by Victorien Sardou, the heroine jumps from the ramparts of Castel Sant'Angelo and falls to her death, when she discovers that her lover Cavaradossi was actually killed during what she thought was a mock execution. Usually the scene is set on the terrace of Castel Sant'Angelo under the vigilant eye of the gigantic bronze statue of St. Michael and Tosca can easily jump down from here. As a matter of fact executions took place in a much less evocative location: a small courtyard in the north-eastern corner of the castle. In general executions in Papal Rome were carried out in public (read a description of an execution by Charles Dickens), but sensitive ones were dealt with in a more secret way behind the walls of Castel Sant'Angelo.

Cortile del Pozzo o di Alessandro VI: (left) well decorated with the coat of arms and heraldic symbols of Pope Alexander VI; (right) semicircular wall with traces of the decoration

Pope Alexander VI, before becoming pope held as cardinal various positions in the Roman Curia; in particular he supervised the construction of many fortresses in northern Latium; he had therefore a direct knowledge of the needs of a garrison; in Castel Sant'Angelo he built cisterns to store water and oil, but the fulfilment of practical needs was always associated with works of art; the well was very finely decorated and the semicircular wall around the well was painted and used as a background for theatre performances.

Loggia di Paolo III

Loggia di Paolo III

Pope Paul III was mainly concerned with providing the popes with an appropriate residence in Castel Sant'Angelo, rather than in improving the fortifications of the building; the papal apartment includes some richly decorated halls and a loggia designed by Raffaello da Montelupo and painted by Girolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta. Pope Paul III took the initial steps towards the reformation of the Roman Church, yet he was a man of the Renaissance and the subjects painted by Girolamo Siciolante were void of devotional intent.

Detail of the grotesque decoration by Gerolamo Siciolante da Sermoneta

Cappelle del Castello

(left) Cappella dei Condannati; (right) Cappella di Papa Leone X

Castel Sant'Angelo was used for centuries as a special prison where the minimal rights of the inmates were forgone. In 1773 Pope Clement XIV abolished the Order of the Jesuits; Lorenzo Ricci, the Superior General of the Order, was imprisoned in Castel Sant'Angelo where he was kept for more than two years until his death; he was never accused of specific offences or brought to a court. A chapel on the ground floor provided religious comfort to those sentenced to death.
The papal apartment had its own small chapel which was built at the time of Pope Leo X: the fine Madonna is attributed to Raffaello da Montelupo.


Overall view of Passetto from Castel Sant'Angelo (in the foreground Bastione S. Marco, the entry point to Passetto)

It is generally thought that Pope Nicholas III had the idea of using a stretch of the medieval walls surrounding the Vatican as a corridore (corridor) linking Palazzo Apostolico to Castel Sant'Angelo. The new walls built by Pope Pius IV after 1562 made useless the medieval walls yet the pope preferred to retain them because of the corridor. Over time they were called Passetto (small passage) because this was their only remaining purpose.

(left) Passetto towards S. Pietro; (centre/right) openings by Pope Pius IV at Via del Campanile and at Vicolo delle Palline

Pope Pius IV made several openings in the medieval walls to allow easy passage between Rione Borgo and its addition, a strip of land between the old and the new walls: each side of each opening was decorated with a slightly different coat of arms of the pope; because his heraldic symbol was identical to those of Pope Leo X and Pope Clement VII, the coats of arms bear the name of the pope.

Walls of Passetto: (left) coat of arms of Pope Alexander VI; (centre/right) coats of arms of Pope Pius IV

Dan Brown set one of the final episodes of his novel Angels and Demons in Passetto; you may wish to read some remarks on the accuracy of the novel.

Borgo Pio

Two Late Renaissance houses in Borgo Pio

The development of Borgo Pio, the addition to Rione Borgo, was an early case of insider trading. When the relatives of Pope Pius IV knew that he was planning to build new walls, they rushed to buy the land which would have been included in the city and then they resold it in small plots, with an enormous gain.
Today Borgo Pio (named after the pope) is full of shops and small restaurants catering for the tourists who return from a visit to Musei Vaticani, yet some houses still retain their original Renaissance appearance which is characterized by a limited number of windows leaving room for paintings.
Borgo Pio does not have churches or palaces, yet wandering about along it and its side streets leads to discovering many interesting details.

(left) Door with name of the landlord in 1701; (centre-above) "I tre pupazzi" - the three puppets - ancient relief on the wall of a house; (centre-below) 1753 inscription under a "madonnella"; (right-above) Fontana di Borgo by Pietro Lombardi (modern); (right-below) 1797 inscription under the madonnella at the corner with Via del Campanile

Excerpts from Giuseppe Vasi 1761 Itinerary related to this page:

Porta Castello
Quella sebbene venga stimata essere sostituita all'antica porta s. Petri, prese però il moderno nome dal vicino castello s. Angelo, perchè a comodo del medesimo fu qui aperta; ma senza alcun ornato di architettura. Fuori di quella porta uscendo, si vede un gran prato, nel quale cavandosi l'anno 1743. furono scoperte delle muraglie, la maggior parte delle quali erano in forma ovale; onde furono credute per sotterranei del Circo di Domizia, e di Domiziano. I prati, che si vedono più oltre, ora lavorati a vigne, furono i celebri prati Quinzj, ne' quali mentre coll'aratro in mano solcava la terra L. Quinzio Cincinnato, fu salutato Ditattore da' Legati Romani.
Corridori del palazzo Vaticano
Dopo il divisato castel s. Angelo, segue una piccola piazza con 4. strade, quella a destra porta alla chiesa di s. Michele Arcangelo già eretta,come dicemmo, da s. Gregorio Magno in memoria della suddetta apparizione del santo Principe, e appresso di questa si vede il gran corridore fatto da Alessandro VI. Spagnolo, affinchè dal palazzo Vaticano si potesse passare segretamente al castel s. Angelo, che poi da Urbano VIII. fu ristaurato e coperto di tetto.

Next plate in Book 1: Map of the Walls of Rome
Next step in Day 8 itinerary Casino Sacchetti