The Passetto di Borgo is a fascinating historical construction that connects the Vatican City with Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. Stretching approximately 800 meters, this fortified passage has witnessed countless events and occurrences over the centuries, serving as an escape route for the popes, as it includes a long escape tunnel.

Its construction dates back to the 13th century, during the papacy of Nicholas III. At that time, Rome was a city in constant conflict, and the popes needed a secure way to move between the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo, originally built in Antiquity as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian. Thus, the idea of building an elevated and fortified passage that would allow the pontiffs to exit unseen and protected from the dangers of the city was born.

The construction of the Passetto di Borgo began in 1277 and was completed in 1297. Built of brick and stone, it rises to a height of seven meters above the streets of Rome and is connected to Castel Sant’Angelo by a fortified bridge.

It starts at the entrance of the Vatican, north of the beginning of St. Peter’s Square, in Piazza della Citta Leonina. Along its course, the passage features several watchtowers, allowing a panoramic view of the city and the ability to defend against attacks.

In the lower part, arches were opened in the late 16th century to allow communication between the two parts of the Borgo neighborhood, which had become separated, and each of them is decorated with the coat of arms of Pius IV with the six spheres of the Medici family.

The origin of the wall on which the Passetto rests dates back to the mid-6th century when Totila, the king of the Ostrogoths, ordered around 550 the construction of a wall next to the mausoleum of Hadrian that linked to the walls built by Aurelian 300 years earlier, turning the tomb into a fortress, the Castel Sant’Angelo, to defend against attacks by the Byzantine general Belisarius.

Later, Pope Leo IV ordered the construction of the so-called Leonine Walls after the sack of Rome by Saracen troops in 852. The walls, which have a U-shaped layout and were built by Saracen prisoners, start at Castel Sant’Angelo and head towards the Vatican hill, surrounding the basilica before descending towards the river.

It would be precisely on a stretch of these walls that the upper walkway and corridor that make up the Passetto were added.

Throughout the centuries, the Passetto di Borgo has played a crucial role in the history of Rome. During the Renaissance, it witnessed clashes between political factions vying for power in the city.

Pope Alexander VI had to use it in August 1494 when Charles VIII of France invaded the city with thirty thousand men.

One of the most famous episodes related to the passage occurred on May 6, 1527, when the army of the Holy Roman Empire, under the command of Emperor Charles V, sacked Rome. Pope Clement VII used the Passetto to take refuge in Castel Sant’Angelo, where he stayed for a month until he surrendered and payed a ransom of 400,000 ducats.

Clement managed to take refuge while his guards covered the retreat with their lives. The last resistance was offered on the left side of the basilica, near the Teutonic Cemetery: 147 out of the 189 who fought there fell to the point that, at the end of that chaos, the protection of the Pope had to be entrusted to four companies of Spanish and German Catholics. A dozen surviving Swiss joined them, and the rest chose to return to their country. The oath of allegiance ceremony that the Swiss Guard currently performs every May 6 commemorates these events.

The Passetto lost its function when the Vatican lost ownership of Castel Sant’Angelo in 1870. The sovereignty over the passage itself remained in the air, as it was not mentioned in the Lateran Pacts between the Kingdom of Italy and the papacy in 1929, and it remained closed and deteriorated until John Paul II formally recognized that it belonged to the Italian state in May 1991.

Today, Vatican controls the first 80 meters from its territory, as a security measure and under the payment of a symbolic rent. The rest of the Passetto was opened to the public on November 11, 1999, after being restored.

In addition to its historical significance, the Passetto di Borgo also has cultural and symbolic meaning in the city of Rome. It has become a symbol of the connection between the Vatican and the city’s secular history.

For centuries, the passage was used by popes for the traditional procession to Castel Sant’Angelo on the Feast of the Ascension, where the city is blessed, and a prayer for peace is offered.

Today, the Passetto di Borgo is a popular tourist attraction in Rome. Visitors have the opportunity to explore a section of the passage and admire panoramic views of the city from the watchtowers.

This historic site has also been used as a setting in movies and works of fiction, adding a touch of mystery and romance to its aura.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on December 12, 2023. Puedes leer la versión en español en Passetto di Borgo, el pasadizo fortificado que fue la vía de huida de los papas


The Passetto (Virtual Roma) | Passetto di Borgo (Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali) | Passetto di Borgo (Museo Nazionale di Castel Sant’Angelo) | Wikipedia

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