Castel Sant’Angelo and Ponte Sant’Angelo, castle of the holy angel and bridge of the holy angel, are two of the most photographed monuments in Rome–and with good reason.
A 15-minute walk from the Pantheon (or half an hour from the Forum complex) takes you to this 443-foot stone bridge over the Tiber and towards the austere, imposing Castel Sant’Angelo. Both structures originated originated in the Roman Empire.
Emperor Hadrian (117-138 AD) ordered the bridge built c. 134-135 AD. Made of regional materials, including Travertine, it was to provide passage to the Emperor’s mausoleum It’s been called Castel Sant’Angelo since the 600s when, according to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared atop the structure and rid Rome of the plague.
Beginning with the Barbarian invasions, Castel Sant’Angelo was gradually repurposed as a fortress, and it was finally acquired by the Papal court in the Middle Ages. The Papal court continued using the building as a fortress, as well as a treasury and prison.
There is a secret passage, called the Passetto di Borgo, that connects Castel Sant’Angelo with the Vatican, which has permitted past popes with a means of escaping invading armies.
Castel Sant’Angelo remains a papal property, and it now houses a museum.
Like the mausoleum, the bridge was renamed following the legend of Archangel Michael’s visitation. Originally called Pons Aelius, it became known as Ponte Sant’Angelo even before the sculptures existed. Under the direction of Pope Clement IX (1600 –1669), Bernini added the angels in the 17th century; the ten figures hold instruments that represent moments in Jesus Christ’s passion.
The bridge is completely pedestrian, so there are no worries about cars (although some motorized vehicles are to be expected). It does tend to get crowded beginning in the late morning as people move from the historic center and toward the Vatican; there is a constant flow, so there isn’t always time–or space–to pause, examine the angels, and take in the views.
If you do like the time and space to pause, examine, and take in, early morning promises those things. Afterward you can always pop into one of the riverside cafes for your morning cappuccino and cannocino.
For a really astonishing view of the bridge, castle, and St. Peter’s, head about 600 yards north to Ponte Umberto I (again, early in the day is best).