With its unmistakeable cylindrical contour and particularly scenic position along the shore of the Tiber River, Castel Sant'Angelo is one of the town's most famous landmarks. Its appearance today is the result of a long series of transformations that, in reality, have left no traces of the glorious Roman "Hadrianeum", the mausoleum that Emperor Hadrian built for himself and his successors. Indeed, we must try and imagine an enormous cylinder positioned on a square plan, with a garden top covered with tuff, travertine and copious trees.
In the centre, at the summit of the central tower, there was probably a bronze statue of the Emperor in the guise of the Sun, riding a quadriga. But in medieval times, the mausoleum changed its function as an imperial tomb. Towers and defensive walls were erected during the reign of the Emperor Aurelian and a defensive bastion was built during the barbaric invasions.
By the Middle Ages, Castel Sant'Angelo had been transformed into a practically unassailable fortress in a particularly strategic position that defended the northern entrance of the city.
The popes also commissioned the construction of a covered fortified corridor connected to the Vatican Palaces, which was to be used in the event of danger as an extreme escape route. Castel Sant'Angelo also guarded the riches of the popes: the treasury room in the centre of the fort was a kind of safe for Rome during the Renaissance. The castle was also used to store enormous reserves of food, which were to be used in the event of an attack. There were wineskins set in the walls, enormous water tanks, granaries and even a mill.
However, in the past, Castel Sant'Angelo was sadly notorious for functions of a much more grave nature. Its courtyards were the scene of executions by decapitation and the heads of the condemned were then hung for days along the bridge as a terrible warning.
In the small, damp and dark cells, the prisoners died of hunger and thirst or due to terrible tortures. It was here that Benvenuto Cellini, Cagliostro and Giordano Bruno were imprisoned before being burnt on the stake in Campo dei Fiori square. Later, after the establishment of the Italian State, the structure was turned into a military barrack.
Today it is visited by tourists from all over the world and is home to the National Museum of Castel Sant'Angelo. A very dear landmark of the town is the statue of Archangel St. Michael, high up on the enormous terrace, from which the castle takes its name. It was created in memory of an ancient legend that speaks of the terrible plague that struck Rome in 590 AD, which ended thanks to the apparition of an angel that appeared above the castle and conceded grace to the town when he sheathed his sword.