Secret History of Italy: the Prisons of Castel Sant’Angelo

The Mausoleum of Hadrian, usually known as Castel Sant’Angelo is one of the main tourist attractions in Rome.— Photo by GekaSkr

The Mausoleum of Hadrian, usually known as Castel Sant’Angelo is one of the main tourist attractions in Rome.— Photo by GekaSkr

When visiting Rome, I like staying close to the Vatican: there’s something magic in seeing “il cupolone” first thing in the morning that I wouldn’t change for anything. There’s something else I regularly do when there, I always cross the Tiber on Ponte Sant’Angelo. “How touristy” you may think and, yes, you’re right, I don’t deny to succumb every now and then to the guilty pleasure of behaving like a first timer in Rome, even if I know the capital pretty well by now. Yet, that bridge is just breathtaking, with all its angels guarding waters and skies and I always, always feel as I were the only one stepping on its “sanpietrini” while crossing, just like an Empress walking towards her castle. What castle? Castel Sant’ Angelo, of course which, if you come from the Tiber, stands haughty and timeless just in front of you. 

If you’ve been to Rome, you probably know a thing or two about Castel Sant’Angelo: for example, you’re probably aware it was built upon the mausoleum of Emperor Hadrian and that it’s been protection to the Vatican and its popes for more than fifteen centuries. You probably also know there is a fortified passage running for 800 meters between Vatican city and the castle itself, commonly known as “il passetto” or “el corridore” in local roman dialect. “Il passetto “ was built for pope Alexander IV Borgia, at the end of the 15th century, and was used by many a pope to seek refuge within the strong, protective walls of Castel Sant’Angelo. 

Something not many know, however, is that Castel Sant’Angelo used to host the Vatican’s high security prisons, where many an important name of Italian history got imprisoned throughout the centuries. 

The Historical Prisons of Castel Sant’Angelo 

The Prisons are located underneath the Cortile della Balestra, also known as Cortile del Pozzo. As mentioned, they were, very likely, built under request of pope Alexander IV Borgia, even though part of their structure, such as the round corridor connecting part of the cells, is original to the castle’s roman structure. Borgia had already existing rooms adapted to cells and had other built on purpose; his is also Castel Sant’Angelo’s well, decorated with his own coat of arms. 

Secret prisons, they’re called, and their structure and look, still today, does everything to remind visitors of their mysterious past: accessed through a small door is the prisons’ parlor, which leads to the above mentioned semi-circular corridor of imperial origin. Along it, the first signs of imprisonment, in the shape of three small, claustrophobic cells. Two more detention areas form the rest of the complex: these are interesting both archeologically and historically, as the original roman walls of the mausoleum are visible within them. They’ve also been home to Benvenuto Cellini, renaissance goldsmith and artist, author of a famous autobiography: here, Cellini notes how he spent time drawing the features of a Resurrecting Jesus and God Father on the walls of his cell, drawings which can still be seen, albeit rather faintly, in one of the prison’s cells. 

Cellini is considered one of the prisons’ most famous guests not only because he was a known artist, but also because he’s one of the very few who managed to escape. He did it through, it seems, the window of an external privy still extant today. As a matter of fact, he was imprisoned because of personal diatribes with Pier Luigi Farnese who fabricated accusations against Cellini to have him locked. Mind, Cellini wasn’t exactly a goody-two-shoes (he had a murder or two to pay for, papally condoned because of his service to the Vatican) so his stay in the prisons of Castel Sant’ Angelo was, somehow, at least morally justified. 

Fast forward a couple  of centuries and meet another of the prisons’ most celebrated guests: the Count of Cagliostro. Defined a “powerful mix of ingenuity and deceit, genius and charlatanry, mysticism and intemperance” Cagliostro was imprisoned because of his unclear affairs and his penchant for necromancy and magic, denounced by his very own wife. Of course, the Inquisition could not let a man of such a calibre go, and condemned him to death. Cagliostro, possibly thanks to his strong link with Freemasonry, ended up having his death sentence turned into life in prison. He was to be moved to San Leo prisons, in Emilia Romagna, where he died. 

History, folklore and archaeology find a beautiful and interesting meeting point in Castel Sant’Angelo, and a lesser known, yet just as interesting, gem in its prisons. They’re part of the Castle’s tour and can be visited, along with the museum every day from 9 am to 7.30 pm. 


Receive More Stories Like This In Your Inbox



Lost crafts: the master rope maker, u mast’s l’andrète

The craft of rope makers, funaio or cordaro , is as old as Man: a thousands-year long art, based on an easy manual technique, where two only...

Italian craftsmanship: culture, heritage and hope for the future

The expression Made in Italy itself is almost perfectly synonymous with Italian craftsmanship, or artigianato, to say it as we do. From culinary...

The world behind your Italian name

Naming a child is usually one of two things: a matter of trends or a matter of tradition. Every year, parents all over the world let celebrities and...

Castelbuono: the miracle of manna and the holy skull

Pinned like a medieval brooch on the slopes of Mount Milocca, Castelbuono is the leading producer of manna in all the Mediterranean region. In this...

Aqua Mirabilis, the Italian scent that changed perfumery

The glossy, celebrity-filled cologne counters of modern shopping malls hide a fascinating, if odd history. Today’s fragrances offer heady punches of...

Weekly in Italian

Recent Issues