Hadrian's Hall: Charles Freeman Visits the Eternal City, and Finds the Castel Sant'Angelo, Home to Emperors and Popes, to Be the Clue to Unravelling Its Fabulously Rich and Complex History

By Freeman, Charles | History Today, January 2007 | Go to article overview

Hadrian's Hall: Charles Freeman Visits the Eternal City, and Finds the Castel Sant'Angelo, Home to Emperors and Popes, to Be the Clue to Unravelling Its Fabulously Rich and Complex History


Freeman, Charles, History Today


... The memorial to the emperor Hadrian is a temple of marvellous size, all covered in marble and adorned with various sculptures, enclosed by bronze gates decorated with a gold bull and gold peacocks, from which were taken the two that now stand at the fount of St Peter's. [They are now in the Vatican Museums]. In the four corners of the temple there were four horses in gilded bronze, and in the middle ring stood the porphyry tomb of Hadrian which is now at St John Lateran as the tomb of Pope Innocent II.

FROM MIRABILIA URBIS ROMAE, THE MEDIEVAL GUIDE TO ROME c. AD 1150.

THE EXPERIENCE OF VISITING ROME is overwhelming. The truth of the famous saying, Roma, non basta una vita, 'Rome, a lifetime is not enough' becomes apparent as soon as one tries to arrange even a fortnight's stay in the city.

One of the most remarkable features of Rome is how each layer of its history has built on earlier ones, not only because buildings have been reused--the Pantheon as a church, for instance--but because each new phase in the city's art reflects back on earlier models and periods. For me, the building which most evokes the richness of Rome's history is the Castel Sant'Angelo, originally built as the mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-138). Its size, its site on the river, the approach over Hadrian's original bridge that is now graced with angels designed by the great seventeenth-century sculptor Bernihi, its continual use and reuse over the centuries, have left it as a palimpsest of Rome's past.

There is a contrast between Hadrian's surviving imprint on Rome and his own feeling for the city. His reign had started uneasily when he hushed up the death of his predecessor Trajan, which had taken place on campaign in the east, before announcing that Trajan had designated him as his successor. Before the Senate in Rome could react, Hadrian had secured the allegiance of the eastern legions, and the senators were outraged at what appeared to be a cleverly planned coup. Hadrian had to order the execution of four of them for conspiracy and the rest were coerced into silence.

He was never happy in the city and half of his reign was spent on provincial tours which extended from northern Britain to Egypt and the Greek east where culturally he felt most at home. So it is surprising how much of his legacy remains in Rome, the Pantheon, the temple to Venus and Rome on the edge of the Forum, his great country villa at Tivoli as well as his mausoleum, now known at the Castel Sant'Angelo: it acquired its name after a vision of the Archangel Michael above its battlements was said to have signalled the end of a plague in 590.

When the Castel was built in the 130s, it was outside the city in an area where the tombs of the rich lined the roads from the centre. The Ager Vaticanus was the flat and largely unoccupied zone of land on the western side of the river Tiber which led up to higher ground and it is possible that Hadrian aimed to open up this area for settlement. He certainly made it more accessible, with a grand bridge which led to the mausoleum itself, several of whose arches survive in the present Ponte Sant'Angelo. Until 1450 it was to be the only bridge between the ancient precincts of Rome to the Vatican and all pilgrims from the north had to cross it.

It is not until one enters the courtyards of the Castel Sant'Angelo that one appreciates just how massive the original structure was. The ashes of the Emperor, his wife, and his successors up to Caracalla (who died in 217) were buried in the central chamber that was reached by a circular ramp rising inside the walls of the great drum. Six metres high and three wide, the ramp ascends gradually for some 125 metres until a passage off leads into the burial chamber. It must have been an extraordinary experience to have witnessed the slow funeral processions making their way in candlelight up towards the imperial resting place. …

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Hadrian's Hall: Charles Freeman Visits the Eternal City, and Finds the Castel Sant'Angelo, Home to Emperors and Popes, to Be the Clue to Unravelling Its Fabulously Rich and Complex History
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