Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge might not be the most ancient in Rome (Pons Fabricius holds this record) but bears such a stormy, fascinating history that it certainly is one of the most interesting and beautiful bridges in Rome.
Ponte Sant’Angelo is a cobbled bridge that opens a scenic way from the city center to the Hadrian Mausoleum, today called Castel Sant’Angelo, one of the most historically important buildings of Rome.
Table of Contents
- 1 History of Ponte Sant’Angelo Bridge
- 2 Art and Architecture of Ponte Sant’Angelo Bridge
- 3 Legends and Facts about Castel Sant’Angelo Bridge
- 4 What to See near Ponte Sant’Angelo Bridge
- 5 Where to eat near Ponte Sant’Angelo
- 6 Where to stay near Ponte Sant’Angelo
History of Ponte Sant’Angelo Bridge
Even though not the oldest Roman bridge still standing, the Castel Sant’Angelo bridge is indeed very ancient. It was erected by the emperor Hadrian in the 2nd second century, in 136 CE, with the purpose to give monumental access to his funerary mausoleum (Castel Sant’Angelo) built beyond the Tiber from Rome’s pulsing heart and historic center.
Originally, the bridge was really used mainly as a passageway to visit and pay respect to the tomb of the emperor. Only gradually, with time and with the Hadrian Mausoleum also playing different roles including stronghold, residence, and prison, also the bridge became the theater of several historical events.
In 472 the Germanic troops of Ricimer used this bridge to invade the eastern side of Rome at the time under the protection of emperor Anthemius, killed by the same Germanic general during the siege.
During the Middle Ages, Castel Sant’Angelo was used as a stronghold so the bridge was equipped with a fortified tower.
The Jubilee of the year 1450 was marked by a tragedy: when the bridge was being crossed by a myriad of pilgrims coming and going to the Vatican, a shying horse or mule caused widespread panic, and the crowd amassed against the railings, making them collapse. Many people fell on the river and the incident caused almost 200 dead.
On this occasion, Pope Nicolò V ordered to place two chapels at the entrance of the bridge, one devoted to Saint Mary Magdalene and one to the Holy Innocents. The chapels remained there for less than a century because in 1533 Pope Clemens VII made them replace with two marble statues of Saints Paul and Peter that we can still see today.
Three years later, the city needed some sprucing up here and there for the arrival of the emperor Charles V and one of the places to be revamped was once again the Sant’Angelo bridge. Pope Paul III ordered that the bridge would be adorned with eight statues, four representing the Evangelists and the other four the Patriarchs Adam, Abraham, Noah, and Moses. The statues were in stuccowork, though, so they wore out pretty quickly. In 1668, Pope Clemens IX put the leading artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini in charge of a full renovation of this bridge.
In its long history, the Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge was crossed by countless pilgrims who wanted to pay their respect to Saint Peter’s tomb but also by many popes, kings, queens, world leaders, by some of the biggest Italian and world artists such as Dante Alighieri, Michelangelo, Bramante, Botticelli, Copernico, Torquato Tasso, and several saints including San Filippo Neri and Santa Rita da Cascia.
Originally, the bridge was called Pons Aelium after the emperor himself (Publio Elio Adriano), while in the Middle Ages its name was changed to Ponte San Pietro (Saint Peter’s bridge) because it was the direct connection between the Vatican to the city and the shortest way to reach the tomb of Saint Peter.
Its current name, however, is more ancient and dates back to 590 CE. This is when, according to tradition, Pope Gregory I saw the archangel Michael on top of the Hadrian Mausoleum sheathing his sword. This was taken as the definitive sign to announce the end of the deadly plague that had been raging in Rome for two years. This is when both the castle and the bridge were dubbed Sant’Angelo.
Art and Architecture of Ponte Sant’Angelo Bridge
The current look of the Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge was reached in the late 19th century. Before that, the bridge was made of three large central arches flanked by two smaller ones on the edges.
The original bridge was made in peperino coated with travertine and consisted of three arcades accessible through ramps from the river shores. The ramps were supported by smaller arches on both shores but were destroyed during the complete renovation launched around 1892-93 when they built the river banks.
After demolishing the small arches, they built other two large arcades on both sides identical to the three central vaults. Now Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge consists of five large brickwork arcades, it is 130 meters long (426 feet) and 9 meters wide (30 feet).
The Angels of Castel Sant’Angelo
Along with architectural changes, Bernini added ten marble statues to the two of Saints Peter and Paul already standing at the entrance, ten angels representing the symbols of the Passion of Christ.
The ten angels of the Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge were carved by Bernini and his pupils, they are arranged in couples and bear inscriptions from the Old Testament on their base.
The first couple symbolizes the flogging suffered by Jesus with one angel holding the scourge the Christ was flogged with and one the pillar where he was tied.
A second couple of angels have the crown of thorns and the veil where Jesus left his blood.
In the third couple of angels, we see Jesus’ tunic and the nails used to crucify him.
The fourth couple of angels hold the mocking INRI title and Jesus’ cross.
The fifth and last couple of angels hold the sponge soaked with vinegar that a soldier gave him instead of water and the lance that pierced Jesus’ side.
Check out our article on the best places to see Bernini in Rome.
Legends and Facts about Castel Sant’Angelo Bridge
With such a long history, so many events that happened here, and the fact that it’s in a city so full of tales and mysteries like Rome, it’s no wonder that there are so many legends around Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge.
- Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge is fully pedestrian, just like in ancient times when it was closed to chariots and only accessible on foot.
- One of the functions of the Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge has been to display the bodies of the people sentenced to death and executed in Ponte Sant’Angelo square on the side of Lungotevere degli Altoviti, starting from the year 1500 with some 18 men hanging at the entrances.
- Ponte Sant’Angelo was so busy and crowded during the Jubilee years that even Italy’s biggest poet Dante Alighieri mentioned it in his Divine Comedy. In his travels through Hell, we can read in rhymes and verses his chronicle of pilgrims crossing the bridge to and from Saint Peter’s Basilica in the year 1300, the first Jubilee announced by Pope Boniface VIII.
- One of the most famous people executed in front of Castel Sant’Angelo was the young Roman patrician Beatrice Cenci, beheaded on September 11th, 1599. Every year, on this same night, the ghost of Beatrice Cenci is believed to wander around the bridge holding her head in her hands.
- Saints Peter and Paul became talking statues. Rome has several well-known talking statues, but these at the entrance of Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge are not enlisted among them. On one occasion, and one only, these, too, became talking statues. This happened under the rule of Pope Sixtus V, famous for being very strict and very little forgiving, making a point of his little tolerance for unlawful acts in every sentence. To the extent that one morning the statues were bearing a sign talking about leaving Rome because they worried that the pontiff would take revenge for something that happened 1585 years earlier.
- Two of the angels decorating the two sides of the Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge, namely the one with the INRI inscription on the left and the one with the crown of thorns on the right, were made by Bernini himself. They were considered too beautiful to be exposed to the moods of the weather so they were replaced by copies made by his pupils. More precisely, the one with the crown was made by Paolo Naldini while the one with the INRI mocking title by Bernini himself aided by his student Giulio Cartari. The originals remained the property of the Bernini family and in 1729 his nephew Prospero Bernini donated them to the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte near the Spanish Steps where we can admire them still today.
- The night between the 12th and 13th of July 1881, when the funerary parade was crossing Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge carrying the body of Pope Pius IX who had died in 1878, the carriage with his coffin was attacked by a group of anticlericals who wanted to throw the dead pontiff on the river.
- The best time to photograph Ponte Sant’Angelo is in the morning if you arrive from Flaminio or Piazza Cavour because the sun will be behind you. Coming from Trastevere, it’s best to photograph Sant’Angelo bridge in the afternoon. Opt for this side of the bridge for fantastic night photography and shots during the blue hour.
- Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge is one of the most romantic promenades in Rome’s city center.
Make sure you read our article on the most romantic things to do in Rome.
Where it is and how to reach Ponte Sant’Angelo Bridge
- Location. Ponte and Borgo quarters between Castel Sant’Angelo in Lungotevere Castello 50 and Piazza di Ponte Sant’Angelo between Lungotevere Tor di Nona and Lungotevere degli Altoviti.
- How to reach. On foot: a short stroll from Piazza Cavour in Prati and Piazza Navona in the historic center as well as a 15-minute walk along Via della Conciliazione from Saint Peter’s Square. By metro: 15 minutes walk from Lepanto station (line A). By bus: n. 23, 64, 40, 62, 280, 982.
What to See near Ponte Sant’Angelo Bridge
- Castel Sant’Angelo. Built as the mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian and his family, Castel Sant’Angelo has covered several different functions throughout history to become one of the most important and fascinating buildings to visit in Rome.
- Borgo. A walk around the Borgo quarter near the Vatican is a fantastic time-traveling adventure around the bygone Papal States.
- Saint Peter’s Square. A must-see in Rome, St. Peter’s Square is an architectural gem packed with artwork.
- Saint Peter’s Basilica. Once in the square, I recommend joining the queue and visiting the fantastic basilica, one of the most famous churches in Rome, to see one of the finest examples of Italian sacred architecture and immortal artwork. Some of the masterpieces include Michelangelo’s La Pietà and Bernini’s bronze canopy known as St. Peter’s Baldachin.
- Mausoleum of Augustus. Round in shape and majestic, you will find the funerary mausoleum of the emperor Augustus a stone’s throw from the bridge.
- Piazza Navona. One of the most famous and spectacular squares in Rome, Piazza Navona is a very short walk from Ponte Sant’Angelo bridge and worth a stop for its stunning fountains and Borromini’s Baroque masterpiece in the church of Sant’Agnese in Agone.
- Church of San Luigi dei Francesi. Beautiful Renaissance church displaying three famous paintings of Caravaggio in Rome.
- Santa Maria della Pace Church. A Renaissance and Baroque jewel in Rome’s city center, Santa Maria della Pace is decorated with beautiful frescoes by Raphael and includes the famous Chiostro del Bramante cloister.
Where to eat near Ponte Sant’Angelo
When it’s time to eat, I suggest you stray away from the strictly touristy areas and head to Prati instead where you can find several nice restaurants or further in the city center.
- Camillo B. Located in Piazza Cavour, Camillo B. is a large and versatile restaurant where you can eat à la carte or buffet-style.
- L’Arcangelo. L’Arcangelo is in Via Gioachino Belli near Piazza Cavour and serves fine-dining dishes blending tradition and modernity.
- Hedera. If you are walking around Borgo Pio and feeling hot under the Roman summer sun, there is nothing better than a gelato from Hedera gelateria. Few flavors but just perfectly creamy and hearty.
- Coromandel. Coromandel is famous for its delicious and diverse breakfast and brunch. One of our favorite breakfast places, we absolutely recommend it.
- Supplizio. Near Campo de’ Fiori, Supplizio is a favorite street food place perfect if you are looking for a delicious on-the-go meal.
Make sure you read our article on the best street food places in Rome.
Where to stay near Ponte Sant’Angelo
High-end: Villa Agrippina Gran Meliá.
Check out our guide to the best accommodation near the Vatican.
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