Anyone seen “Angels & Demons”? If so, you know about the Passetto.  It’s the passageway used by the Popes (and Tom Hanks) to go back and forth securely between the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo.

When I saw the movie it made me wonder about the history of this tunnel through the wall (who didn’t want a secret passageway in their house as a kid? I still do).  It was a passing interest, though, and I had forgotten about it until I was walking through Castel Sant’Angelo and saw it through an opening.


At first I wasn’t sure if that was it or just some other city wall.  I mean, when I watched the movie I wasn’t familiar with Rome at all and hadn’t a clue that the fortress I was now visiting was the one with the passageway.


Castel Sant’Angelo was originally built between 130-139AD as a mausoleum for the Roman emperor Hadrian.  Popes over the years had built and destroyed several walls connecting the Castel with the Vatican until in 1277 Pope Nicholas III built the passageway that’s there today.


The Passetto splits the Roman neighborhood called “Borgio” in two and there are streets running on either side allowing you to walk along beside it, almost from start to finish.


You can see it running just north of St. Peter’s Square, connecting to a palace Pope Nicholas III built (around the same time as the Passetto) in the 13th century near the Vatican.


It runs over streets, park and moat into the Bastion of St. Mark in Castel Sant’Angelo.


But why build a secure passageway into a mausoleum?  Did the Popes really want to visit Hadrian’s burial chamber so often?

Nope.  In 401AD the mausoleum was converted into a fortress.  Nicholas III built the Passetto so that the Popes would have a place to flee to if the Vatican was ever under siege.

Pope Alexander VI closed in the passageway around 1492 (it had been open to the air before) and his crest can be seen at two places in it.  (Or, so I’ve read.  Though you used to be able to schedule times to walk a part of the Passetto from the Castel side, it seems like they’ve stopped giving access, at least for now.)  Alexander VI crossed the distance himself, shortly after closing it in, when King Charles VIII of France invaded the city and he felt his life was in peril.

Pope Clement VII also escaped through the Passetto in 1527 during the Sack of Rome.  Most of the Swiss guard was massacred during the attack, right on the steps of St. Peter’s.


I took this picture from the top of the Bastion of St. Mark.  I love how you can see the Italian flag flying in the late-afternoon sun and the Passetto leading from the Bastian across the Borgio toward the Vatican, whose dome is backlit by the almost pure-white sun.




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Turning my obsession with Italy into something I can pretend is constructive. Italy travel tips and stories for everyone.

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