Written by Peet Banks
The History and Haunts of the Castel Sant’Angelo, Rome
In August 2016 I was fortunate enough to visit Europe – with Italy being on the agenda. Accompanied by my sister, there were so many places on our ‘to do’ list, Pompeii, Naples, the Vatican and St Peter’s Basilica, and of course the Colosseum and the Roman Forum.
Our journey through Italy is a whole other story – one fraught with laughs and near misses (for those who have been – you know what I mean when I say ‘Italian Drivers’), and I loved every second of my time there, and especially when I discovered ‘the surprise’.
During our whole time in Rome (about five days), I kept seeing this magnificent, round castle, sitting in a prominent position on the skyline. I had no idea what it was, and didn’t even know that there was an old castle in the middle of Rome. I had heard of all the other tourist destinations of course, except this!
The building, with its round edges, and its striking statue of an angel sitting right on the very top of it, kept calling to me.
One night my sister and went on the Dark Rome Ghost Tour. I say ‘night’, because it was 8pm, but in all honesty it was still daylight, which was a little disconcerting for a ghost tour. We met on the steps of an ancient church, not far from the Pantheon, and began our walking tour of the streets of Rome, the night sky obliging by darkening as we went.
The tour was amazing! A little too theatrical for my taste, but incredibly informative and full of some great stories! It ended at the Castel Sant’Angelo – the amazing castle I had been seeing in the days prior.
“Finally” I thought. “Finally I get to find out about this place and go inside!”
Alas it was not to be. The tour concluded on the bridge, with a ghost story of a girl who had been tortured in the Castle, walking across the bridge, holding her head in her hands. The story goes that only men of bad character can see her, so if you are able to see her, go and rethink your morals!
As the people on the ghost tour dispersed, my sister and I made our way to the entrance. It was after 11pm by this stage, and the gates were still open. We spoke to a lovely attendee on the gate, who advised us that the castle closed at midnight. Looking at the size of it we reluctantly decided that it wasn’t to be, and headed back to our hotel.
A few nights later, our last evening in Rome in fact, we discovered that our plans had changed. We were hoping to do the Underground Crypts, but they were booked out (always prebook where possible in Rome), so we had nothing to do. And then it came to us…. LET’S GO TO CASTEL SANT’ANGELO.
I have to say that in all of my 41 years I have wanted to visit Italy. In my mind, I have always wanted to walk around the Colosseum, visit the ruins at Pompeii, marvel at the Sistine Chapel and talk behind my hand about the wealth of the Vatican – but of all the places I visited in Rome, the Castel Sant’Angelo was BY FAR the best. This place is an investigator’s DREAM.
A bit of history about the castle…
Castel Sant’Angelo was initially built as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian (he of the famed Hadrian’s Wall in the UK). So to begin with, like so much in Rome, it is old. Really old. It is estimated to have been built around 123AD.
In its long life it has been a funeral castle, a prison, a papal residence in renaissance times and a museum. It was Rome’s most fortified area, and believed that those who held it had the whole town at their mercy.
Legend says that when the plague ravaged Rome in 590, St Michael appeared on the top of the fortification, heralding the end of the plague. This encouraged artist Raffaello da Montelup, in 1536, to create a marble statue of St Michael, brandishing his sword after the plague. Raffaello’s statue was replaced with a similar one in 1753, and that is the statue that calls out to you as you slowly wind your way up to the roof of the castle.
Pope Nicholas III was responsible for building the Passetto di Borgo (or Roman corridor). It is a wall with a passage inside it up the top, which leads from the Vatican Walls to the Castel Sant’Angelo. It was built so the head of the Church could take refuge in the castle in times of need. It happened! Pope Alexander VI (or Rodrigo Borgia as he was also known) used the passage to lock himself into the Castle when Rome was invaded by Charles VIII of France in 1494.
Pope Clement VII (Giulio de Medici) also used the passage in 1527 during the ‘sacking of Rome’ which was carried out by mercenaries.
The building holds the National Museum of Castel Sant’Angelo, which is fascinating! There are rooms recreated to look as they would’ve in days gone by. There are statues and hidden doorways all throughout the building. We spent hours there, and I’m sure we really only just scratched the surface.
The night we explored the castle, it was virtually empty. I would guess that perhaps there were about 15 people wandering around its vast hallways and staircases. The structure is massive, and you have complete freedom of access to much of it. It only cost us 10 euro to enter, and we could have stayed for hours and hours. In summer months it is open until Midnight, so all those who are visiting Rome – get yourself there! You can’t miss it! On the upper levels there is also a café/restaurant with tables seated along the battlements, facing St Peter’s Basilica.
As we were virtually alone we did conduct a few vigils. I was so adrenaline pumped at being there, surprised by the fact that I had never heard of it, and amazed at how wonderful it was that I didn’t fully concentrate on the investigation side of things. I was too busy staring around me in starry eyed wonder. My sister though… she was petrified! She did not want me to leave her alone. She wanted to walk up the stairways ahead of me because she felt like there was someone behind her, and she was absolutely on edge and kept expecting to see people walking through doorways that were firmly shut and calling out to her. I had never seen her quite that on edge, so I take that to be a good sign of spirit activity!
It would be a dream come true to return to the Castel Sant’Angelo with my full case of equipment, lock me in for the night and investigate! I know that there are so many stories those walls want to tell, and I look forward to the day I return.
Some more photos from Peet's visit to Castel Sant'Angelo