Among the many historic buildings of Rome, a large wall running through the district, or rione, of Borgo may seem just one more feature of the cityscape. However, despite having been partly built during the Gothic War of 535-554 by the Ostrogoth king Totila, this wall is closely linked not only to Rome, but to the Vatican City: in fact, Saint Peter’s Basilica serves as one of its points of origin, with the other being Castel Sant’Angelo, roughly 800 metres away, and the wall thus doubles as a connecting passage between the two venerable buildings.

The idea for a passage and escape route for the Pope originated with Pope Nicholas III, and parts of the existing wall along what is now the Borgo Sant’Angelo were restored in 1277. Curiously, despite its fame as a sheltered pathway, the Passetto has only been used twice by escaping Popes in times of war, with Alexander VI using it in 1494 and Clement VII in 1527: its other uses have included ferrying prisoners from the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo, which was both a Papal fortress and prison, as well as allowing unscrupulous Popes to have illicit meetings away from prying eyes, if scandalous reports are to be believed. Castel Sant’Angelo is now a museum, but despite its prominence, the Passetto remains closed to the public

Although a part of Rome’s landscape for centuries, the Passetto has become famous once more in popular culture, most notably in Dan Brown’s Angels & Demons, where an Illuminati assassin smuggles four cardinals out of the Vatican along the passage, and Professor Robert Langdon later uses it to get back into the Holy City. The video game Assassin’s Creed II also makes use of the Passetto, allowing the protagonist Ezio Auditore to infiltrate the Vatican.


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