Ponte Sant’Angelo is one of my favourite bridges in Rome. I’ve walked across it so many times ~ but had no real idea of its history until just recently when I had to do a talk about it for my italian maestro. It’s so pretty with all those angels… I’ve often wondered why they’re there, but never have I heard of its gruesome past… so I thought I’d share a bit of its history.
Ponte Sant’Angelo ~ or Pons Aelius as it was originally called ~ can’t really be talked about without looking at mausoleum directly in front of it. The Mausoleum is the reason the bridge is there. They were both built by the Emperor Hadrian between 125-139 CE after being inspired by Augustus’s Mausoleum, which had been built about 100 years before. Hadrian decided to build his own, larger mausoleum across the river.
At the time, there was already a bridge just a few metres south, built by Nero some fifty years before, so there was already reasonably good access from the ancient city centre to the right bank of the Tiber River, so Pons Aelius was really only intended to be a ceremonial bridge, probably for funeral processions to the Mausoleum… but we know from the ancient author Prudentius that some time before 400CE the Neronian bridge had collapsed, which made Pons Aelius far more important than had ever been intended.
The bridge today has three large arches over the river, and one smaller one on each side linking the main part over the water to the land. However, originally it had eight arches ~ three smaller arches from the left bank to the main part of the bridge, then the three large arches, and then two smaller arches to the right bank, in front of the mausoleum.
Following the Sack of Rome in 410CE by tribes from the north, the Mausoleum was converted into a fortress in order to protect the bridge, since the bridge by then was such an important northern access point into the city of Rome. The Mausoleum/Fortress also provided a place of safety for the Popes, who resided on the Vatican Hill outside the ancient city. It was in their interest to maintain the Mausoleum as a Fortress and to maintain the bridge to allow Christians safe access to worship.
In the seventh century the Pope claimed that he saw the vision of an angel on the top of the Fortress signalling the end of the plague that was ravaging Rome, thus giving the name ‘Sant’Angelo’ to both the Fortress and the Bridge.
Just over one thousand years later in 1450, Ponte Sant’Angelo was the scene of a terrible disaster. A crowd of pilgrims was trying to cross the bridge to get to the old St Peters to be blessed and surged, breaking the balustrades. One hundred and seventy-two people died that day, suffocating or drowning in the river. Afterwards, the Pope ordered new balustrades for the bridge, and two little chapels and a piazza to be built at the end of the bridge, partly in remembrance of those who died and partly to allow pilgrims a place to wait to cross safely. Construction of the grand Basilica of St Peters commenced a short 56 years later, and the two little chapels were dismantled and the marble taken for construction materials.
In the 1500’s around the time St Peters was being built, the Pope converted the Fortress into a Castle, adding sumptuous apartments for himself ~ but at the same time maintaining its use as a fortress and garrison and prison. He decorated the bridge by adding statues of Saints Peter and Paul, as well as Noah, Moses, Abraham and Adam; of these, only the two Saints are still there.
Following the Sack of Rome in 1527 the Castle began to be used as a place of execution ~ and for many centuries afterwards, the bodies and heads of executed prisoners were exposed on pikes on the side of the bridge as a warning to others. It was said of the bridge that:
Ce so’ più teste mozze su le spallette che meloni al mercato’
‘There were more heads on the shoulders [of the bridge] than melons in the market.
Pope Clement IX added the ten angels, five per side in 1668. Each of the Angels holds an instrument of the Passion of Christ.
The smaller side arches were completely destroyed and replaced when the high river banks were built in the late 1800’s, each replaced with one arch. So the first and last arch of the bridge that we see today are relatively new, and only the central three date from Roman times.
As a side note ~ the Castel Sant’Angelo did not stop being used as a prison and military barracks until 1901. Its amazing to think that this building, originally intended as a place of rest for Hadrian and his family, continued to be used in much the same way for 900 years.
The next time I walk across the Ponte Sant’Angelo I will look at the balustrades in a completely different way.