We have been loving all the new Pope business in Rome. I love the little tidbits we catch about Pope Francis I and his choices in these pivotal first days of his Pontificate. For example, his choice to have a more modest fisherman’s ring (plated in gold rather than made 100% of the expensive metal) and cross necklace (his is made of lead). My favorite snippet was that after being elected, Francesco, though he had the right to stay in his new home at the Vatican, declined and chose to return to his hotel room with the other Cardinals. All three choices express his extreme humbleness. I mean, I think it would have been hard for me to give up my first night’s stay in the Vatican apartments. And that got me thinking about other premises over which new Popes once gained ownership upon their election, namely, the Castel Sant’Angelo.
The Castel Sant’Angelo (aka the once Mausoleum of Hadrian) is a building you may not have noticed or visited while in Rome, though it is basically the biggest building next to Saint Peter’s. It was, at one time, the Pope’s personal castle and fortress. Pope Nicholas III (d. 1280) is said to have built the fortified corridor that connects the castle to St Peter’s Basilica (seen in the photo above heading in the direction of the Vatican). The corridor, called the Passetto di Borgo (named after the district which it traverses), has, on several occasions, served as a knick-of-time escape route for Popes who found themselves in unexpected danger. Pope Alexander VI (the infamous Borgia pope) used the Passetto in 1494, when Charles VIII invaded the city. After which, Alexander promptly restored the passage for future use (good move). During the Sack of Rome in 1527, Clement VII was famously smuggled through the passageway just in time to save his life from the oncoming mercenaries of Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The story goes that the looting troops (who had not been paid in months) stormed the Vatican and massacred almost the entire Swiss Guard on the steps of St Peter’s Basilica. Thanks to the Passetto, Clement kept his life and was able to broker a deal with Charles that won him back his home town of Florence…but that’s a story for another day. Later, Pope Paul III, with an eye to comfort, built a lavish apartment in which the Popes might stay when in flee-dom.
Though the castle was decommissioned in 1901 and eventually turned into a museum (I highly recommend it – have a coffee with an amazing view while you’re there!), it is said that the Swiss guard still hold the keys to the entrance door at the Vatican…you know…just in case.