Bridge and Castle of St. Angelo
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
That is a fine bridge for, one that has spanned the river for eighteen hundred years. When built in A. D. 136, it was called the Pons Aelius, and it was the purpose of Hadrian, who constructed it, to have it used simply as an approach to his magnificent mausoleum, as another bridge was opened to the public near by. While you can count but five arches to the bridge, one between each of the statues, originally there were eight, but the three not seen have been built into the embankment. The bridge, as it stands to-day, is ancient, except its parapets.
The statue nearest us, at the beginning of the left-hand parapet, represents the Apostle Paul and is by Paolo Romano ; opposite to it, but not seen from here, is one of the Apostle Peter by Lorenzetto. The other ten colossal statues are of angels, by Bernini, dating 1668. These designs were made in accordance with the purpose of Clement IX, that " an avenue of the heavenly host should be assembled to welcome the pilgrims to the shrine of the Great Apostle," referring to this bridge as the approach to the church of St. Peter.
Beyond this bridge is the renowned Castle of St. Angelo. Originally a tomb, the massive structure was built by the Emperor Hadrian for himself and his successors, because the last niche in the grand mausoleum of Augustus was filled when the ashes of Nerva were placed there.
This imposing tomb contained, in addition to the above, the ashes of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, Lucius Verus, Marcus Aurelius, Commodus and Septimius Severus ; the ashes of the last named being placed in an urn of gold inclosed in alabaster.
The construction of this imperial mausoleum was characterized by a solidity and a splendor of which, in its present state, we can form but an imperfect idea. First, there was a huge foundation of stone, now concealed by rubbish, three hundred and forty-two feet square. From this arose a circular tower of travertine, two hundred and forty feet in diameter and covered with the richest Parian marble. The circumference of the vast rotunda had pilasters, surmounted with a circle of Greek statues, the whole resting on a base of marble decorated with festoons and engraved with sepulchral inscriptions.
Facing the cardinal points of the compass were four colossal equestrian groups in gilt bronze, while the whole structure was crowned by a gigantic bronze statue of Hadrian, only the head of which has been preserved, and is now in the Vatican Museum. Others maintain that not the statue of Hadrian but the pine cone in the Pigna Garden of the Vatican was on the summit of the tomb.
In the reign of Hadrian, Rome attained its greatest height of architectural grandeur and the decline of the city dates from his time.
In 537, A. D., this wonderful structure was still in a fine state of preservation, but the Goths, under Vitigis, having attacked the city, the tomb was turned into a fortress and its Statues were broken in order to hurl the pieces on the assailants, and from that day to the present time, it has been the scene of more combat and bloodshed than any other spot in Rome. Often have the storm-clouds of war burst over its head in fearful horror and terrific force, and quite as often has the Tiber flowed a river of blood at its feet. Observe how the lower parts of its walls are battered from the pounding of huge catapults and other weapons of conflict.
In the year 590, Pope Gregory the Great headed a procession, walking with naked feet through the streets of the city, then decimated by a plague. As he reached this bridge, bemoaning the misery of the city, suddenly above the castle he saw, it is said, starting out from the clouds, the radiant form of the Arch-angel Michael, who was in the act of sheathing his fiery sword. This became to the Pope a symbol of hope ; and, indeed, the plague is said to have ceased almost immediately.
The bronze statue representing the angel with out-stretched wings sheathing his sword, which we now see on the top of the castle and from which the castle derives its name, is in commemoration of this event. The statue is a prodigious affair, but whether worthy of special praise or not, I cannot say, for it is too far away to tell ; nevertheless, it serves its purpose well, which is to call to mind the vision.
Have you observed in looking at the castle that it is surrounded by another wall? Look at the angel on the parapet of the bridge - the one nearest the castle. We know, for we mentioned it before, that the angel is ten feet high, and bearing this in mind we can readily conclude that the wall must be about forty feet in height; and we are right. Now we have a standard by which to measure the height of the castle itself. Each one can do this on his own account, for our purpose should be to look for ourselves. There is a world of inspiration, pleasure and instruction in scenes like these, if only we know how to see, and this simple, comparative method is a most important element in the problem.
There was probably iii the old days some structure surmounting the great cylindrical one, only much smaller of course, but the superstructure which contains the clock, as we see it now - and if you examine it, you will agree with me that it is quite enormous in size - is of modern origin.
The ancient entrance to the tomb, as was before re-marked, is near the middle height of the structure, and was approached by stone steps set into the wall of the mausoleum.
On entering today, you find yourself in a vaulted and inclined passage-way, both lofty and broad, which circles around the whole interior of the structure in spiral form, from the base to the summit. For long centuries this passage-way was filled with débris and men forgot its existence.
Starting at the top and groping your way through the increasing darkness; led only by the light of a single torch twinkling in the cavernous gloom, it is not to be wondered at that you imagine that you see the ghosts of the illustrious dead whose ashes were deposited there ; and hear, long before you reach the bottom of the vast castle, the piteous cries of the poor victims once imprisoned in its dungeons.
This passage-way is thirty feet wide and eleven feet high, and two carriages could be driven abreast in it; the walls are reeking with slime as though they were hundreds of feet blow the ground, and at every step the pavement oozes beneath one's feet. Originally, the walls of this giant hallway were lined with precious marble, and it$ floor was paved with costly mosaics, portions of which may still be found under the accumulated dirt.
For a small gratuity, ''the guide takes an old marble cannon-ball - and there are many of them piled up on the top of the castle-and, with all his force, sends it bounding down the hollow, curving way, resounding and bellowing, awakening thunderous echoes, until at last, it dies away in one final crash that seems to issue from the very depths of the earth.
Within the castle is shown the dungeon where Bea-trice Cenci-whose portrait, painted by Guido Reni in the Barberini Palace is characterized by Hawthorne as "the most profoundly wrought picture in the world "- is said to have been imprisoned for more than a year. There, also, is shown the cell of Benvenuto Cellini, the artist-soldier and necromancer ; and it is interesting to see the place, in the center of the tomb and lighted from above, where Hadrian's ashes were deposited, and where they were discovered more than a thousand years ago, when they were taken out and scattered to the winds of heaven.
A grand and enduring old structure is this, and never but once has it been taken by force. Intricate and formidable it is, even to-day, with its ancient drawbridges, its broad esplanades and its pyramids of old marble cannon-balls.
Doubtless, you have been wondering to what use that superstructure, which you see graced by a clock, can be put. Well, the floor on a level with the upper half of the clock, is utilized as a prison. There the heat down-pouring on the flat roof would be unendurable, were it not for the cooling breeze and the extended view - one of the finest that can be enjoyed in Rome. The lower floor is used as officers' quarters and contains accommodations for soldiers to the extent of a hundred beds.
Have you overlooked that old bell to the left of the angel? It does not seem to amount to much, but if it were upon the ground beside you it would appear, as it really is, one of the largest bells in Rome. Often has it rung out in times of danger and alarm.
More than three hundred years ago many works of art were found in the moat surrounding the castle. There were the bronze head of Hadrian, now in the Vatican ; the Barberini Faun, now in Munich, and the Dancing Faun of the Uffizzi Gallery in Florence ; all of which, together with others less noted, were disturbed from their long interment of more than twelve hundred years.
I know not how others feel, but as for myself, when looking at the grim, savage, old mausoleum, rising with royal mien upon its solid foundation of unshaken rock, its sides dented and scarred by every conceivable weapon of war, I seem to disregard entirely the white, glistening, snowy tomb of the great Emperor, and think, alone, of the gloomy, majestic castle ; and I find myself thinking how strange would be the tale and how fascinating the story, if it could speak. It could tell of garrisons that have kept ward on its ramparts, and could portray the tragedies of those lion-hearted warriors who scaled its mighty walls, only to be hurled back over its battlements, or who lingered through a long, dark night, in its foul and narrow dungeons. I have often rejoiced as I have crossed the Pons Aelius and wended my way homeward, that my journey hither was not taken in those far-off turbulent days.
We will now take our stand a short distance to the right of our present position, a little farther up the river, in order to get one of the most unique views in Rome - a view of the greatest castle, the greatest palace and the greatest church in the world. We shall be looking, as the number 21 and the red lines on the map of Rome show, practically to the west.