Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Castelo Sant’ Angelo

Castelo Sant'Angelo


      Sooner or later we are going to have to come to grips with the Roman Emperors, and it will not be an easy task. For the time being, however, let me just mention one more: Hadrian. He was emperor from 117 to 138, well after Nero and his dysfunctional family. He is known as one of the ‘Five Good Emperors’ (a great PR line coined by Machiavelli), and you will probably know him from Hadrian’s Wall in Britain, or from any of several great triumphal arches built by or for him around the vast Empire. He Liked to travel. Hadrian was actually from Seville (you may recall that Romans settled the Iberian peninsula for several centuries), which is an interesting factoid. He was the emperor who built The Pantheon, the oldest fully preserved building in Rome, and now a mausoleum itself where Raphael and King Vittorio Emanuele are both interred.

The Pantheon

The reason I bring him up now, is that he also had built a great massif in Rome, on the banks of the Tiber not far from St Peter’s, known now as Castelo Sant’ Angelo. Hadrian built it as his own mausoleum, which seems a bit morbid but I guess he was a planner. Rather amazingly for a Roman emperor and for the second century, Hadrian died at 62, in his own bed, of presumed heart failure. He was eventually cremated and his ashes are indeed interred in what was then called the Tomb of Hadrian. For obvious reasons. It is said that the Good Emperor Hadrian composed this poem shortly before his death:
Animula, vagula, blandula
Hospes comesque corporis
Quae nunc abibis in loca
Pallidula, rigida, nudula,
Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos...

Roving amiable little soul,
Body's companion and guest,
Now descending for parts
Colourless, unbending, and bare
Your usual distractions no more shall be there..

But moving on, we come to the sixth century, when the mausoleum was converted to a fortress, and a passageway built linking it with the Vatican for times of emergency. Pope Gregory ‘The Great’ was on the papal throne at the time, and he had a vision which ended a plague (yeah, yeah) and so the new castle was named Sant’ Angelo.

The famous coffee
To visit the castelo today is a somewhat confusing experience, as it is filled with helpful signs saying “Tour Continues” and an arrow, often pointing in contradictory directions. Since the castelo is circular, with ramps going around and around it, you do end up wandering rather often where you wandered ten minutes ago. I missed all kinds of things that the Rough Guide said “don’t miss...”, but on the other hand I found several other things it didn’t mention at all. For example, near the top is a bar cafe, where I had the best coffee in Rome, possibly in the world, enjoyed at a small table under vines, looking through the parapets at the dome of St Peter’s in the late afternoon. Ahhh...!.

I also found, in one of the inner rooms, a quite extensive exhibition about Garibaldi. Now, will I digress into Garibaldi? It is rather skipping the centuries, since he lived his life of derring-do in the middle of the 19th century, helping to liberate various places, such as Uruguay and Italy, often with strikingly little success. Well, why not? It is interesting, if confusing, to try to understand how modern Italy came to be – how it was ‘unified’ from a number of city states into the country we know today. This crazy guy Garibaldi was an irregular soldier, an adventurer from South America who had women and children all over the place (obviously very virile – he’s a popular Italian hero), who provided the military grunt for the unification patriots – the movement called the Risorgimento. The main political leader in the early days was Mazzini. It is far too complicated to go into all the details, suffice to say that the pope (who was a political ruler, as he had been for centuries) was backed by the French, with the odd result that the French with their famous tradition of independence ended up fighting the Italian independanists. Battles were fought over and in Rome in the late 1840s, and off and on after that, with Garibaldi and his Red Shirts dashing about the countryside fighting anything that moved. At least, I find it very difficult to work out exactly who he was fighting and why. It wasn’t until 1871 that reunification was finally achieved, mainly through political negotiations between a whole lot of vested interests, led by Cavour (Prime Minister of Piedmont) and Vittorio Emanuele, from the House of Savoy.

Italy unified. I think.
To cut a long story short, Vittorio Emanuele was proclaimed ‘King of Italy’ in 1971, and his heirs remained the Italian Royal Family  until ousted by a referendum in 1946 which voted for a republic. I skip lightly over the war years, the dreaded Mussolini (you can see the balcony from which he made speeches a la Hitler at the beautiful Palacio Venezia), the back and forth alliances during the second world war, the instability of the republican governments, and the dreadful Berlusconi (I was shown his official residence, including the back entrance where the hookers are said to have been admitted).

Tosca's parapet.
That’s enough of Italian politics. I need to tell you about the other enjoyable experience I had at Castelo Sant’Angelo. I arrived (eventually) on the very top of the castelo, where the cannon emplacements would have been, a circular area backed by the bulk of the castle tower. This looked eerily familiar – yes! The stage set for the end of Puccini’s ‘Tosca’ looks just like this! (At least it did in the production before last at Opera Australia. The most recent one is set inside a modern church with the guardian playing computer games). Puccini sets the last act of ‘Tosca’ on the ramparts of Castelo Sant’Angelo, where the dastardly Count Scarpia has imprisoned the handsome tenor and tried to rape the soprano, Floria Tosca. She bravely stabs him and comes up with a trick to extricate the tenor from death by firing squad; but it all goes pear-shaped, he is shot dead, and in a great climactic finish she jumps off the castle walls. There is an unkind story about a weighty soprano in the role bouncing on the hidden mattress below the stage set walls, her head bobbing up into view after she is supposed to be long gone, but I am sure it is apocryphal.

So there I sat in Tosca’s stage set, the sun setting over the dome of St Peter’s, replete with good coffee and a long day’s sightseeing done – almost. I did manage to fit in Piazza Navona, The Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain, getting lost, and eating a bad dinner before falling gratefully onto my pillow. It was a long day.

The view from the top: The Tiber

No comments:

Post a Comment