~ Curious And Unusual ~
- 5 -

the Passetto

Approaching St.Peter's Square from the north, i.e. from its right side, passing by Sant'Anna Gate, just before the boundary between the Italian state and the Vatican one it is impossible not to notice a long wall, about 25-30 feet tall, which runs parallel to the colonnade. It looks like a fortification, similar to the ones built in ancient times around most cities, to protect their boundaries. But nobody would imagine that this one conceils a walkable gallery that runs through the wall, leading to Sant'Angelo Castle, on the western bank of the river Tiber, about 350 metres (or yards) off the Vatican.
Romans call this wall Passetto ("small passage"), also known in old times as Corridore di Borgo ("Borgo district's corridor").

the Passetto

The origin of the Passetto's wall dates back to the mid 6th century. Totila, king of the Ostrogoths, who was at war with the Byzantines for the possession of the whole Italian peninsula, had taken Rome for the second time in 550.

the direction of the Passetto (arrows), from the Vatican, left, to the Castle
Having to leave the city, in order to follow his military campaign further south, he ordered the making of a low wall by the mausoleum of Hadrian, which linked to the city walls built by Aurelian 300 years earlier (see the relevant pages for details) and turned the aforesaid tomb into a fortress. During the siege by the Ostrogoths, the last Byzantine soldiers who defended Rome had sought for shelter inside the mausoleum; so the monument was altered in order to be used as a fortified placement. Therefore, this was also the beginning of the transformation of the mausoleum into a castle.

The Ostrogoth wall was likely poorly built, as it soon crumbled down; today, only a few stone blocks of this primitive structure are still extant.

In 800, pope Leo III crowned the king of the Franks Charlemagne as the first emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Since Rome was considered the religious capital of the empire, the emperor decreed the making of a new wall, in order to defend St.Peter's tomb. Also this one did not last long; as soon as Leo III died (816), the same people of Rome, fearing that the castle might turn into a new centre of power held by the pope and the emperor, thus endangering the city's autonomy, during a riot took down the wall.

In 830, and then again in 846, Rome was seriously threatened by the Saracen pirates; the ancient set of walls built by emperor Aurelian proved effective in protecting the city, but the basilica of St.Peter's and that of St.Paul's Outside the Walls, left unprotected, were easily reached. The furnishings and the valuables were stolen, the churches were damaged and several members of the foreign communities who lived in the Vatican area were killed.
In order to avoid further risks, around 850, pope Leo IV, likely urged by Lothair I (Charlemagne's grand-son and holy roman emperor by the time of the facts), had a defensive wall built all around the basilica and its grounds, starting from the fortress (i.e. the tomb of Hadrian). The present Passetto was only the first stretch of its whole length, which measured about 3 Km (1.3 miles), and had 44 towers.

wall built by Totila (6th century)
wall built by Leo IV (9th century)

coat of arms of Alexander VI,
Rodrigo Borgia (de Borja)
Unfortunately, the precise direction of these walls can no longer be traced, except for the parts still standing. The name of the architect in charge for the works, Agatho, is mentioned by an inscription found on the same wall.

The importance of a connection between the Vatican and the Castle became crucial when the popes, after their self-exile in Avignon (France), came back to Rome in 1377 and chose their new residence by St.Peter's basilica.

the Passetto at its Vatican end; the columns of
St.Peter's square (lower left corner) are very close

It was pope Nicholas III (1277-80) who had the first walkway created above the wall; for the first time, the Passetto started acting also as a passage.

About two centuries later (c.1492), pope Alexander VI sponsored further alterations; an upper footway was built above the extant one, which was therefore turned into a gallery. Also the crenellation that runs along the upper part of the wall was added at this stage. The coat of arms of Alexander VI can be seen twice along the inner side of the wall, above Porta Viridaria (i.e. at the Vatican end, see The Popes' Walls, part I page 2) and above a surviving tower located midway along its length.

the irregular texture testifies the many times the wall was rebuilt
The conceiled passage proved useful to pope Clement VII, who in 1527 used it to escape from his apartments in the Vatican to the much safer castle, during the siege set by the Lansquenets, mercenaries sent by emperor Charles V, who literally vandalized the city for about one year; the sack of Rome was a retaliation, for having the pontiff broken his word to form an alliance against the French king Francis I.

a view of the gallery

(↑ above) the coat of arms of Pius IV
marks the passages he opened;

(← left) the Passetto cuts through
Borgo district towards the Vatican
When pope Pius IV (1559-65) enlarged the city boundaries on the Vatican's side by building a second wall almost parallel to the Passetto, about 100 metres (or yards) further north, the old structure was not taken down, but it lost its original defensive function, yet still providing a connection between the Apostolic Palace and Sant'Angelo Castle. By running across the whole length of Borgo, the old wall now divided the district into two parts: the original nucleus, renamed Borgo Vecchio (Old Borgo), and Borgo Nuovo (New Borgo) between the Passetto and the new wall.

Several archways were opened in the lower part of the Passetto, in order to allow the communication between the two parts of the district, which otherwise would have been separated; each archway is decorated with the coat of arms of Pius IV, the six spheres of the Medici family (left).

the Passetto in a picture taken in 1855 (above ↑) and one taken
by painter Roesler-Franz around 1885 (right →)
note the upper footway, still covered by a roof (yellow arrows)
Around 1630, pope Urban VIII had the upper footway covered with a roof, thus turning it into a second gallery. This addition was removed no sooner than 1949, when restoration works retrieved the original shape of the passage.

In 1906 the castle was turned into a museum, but for many years the gallery running through the Passetto stayed closed to the public, as most of its parts had become unsteady and insecure.

Finally, among the many restoration workshops set up in the city on the occasion of the Jubilee Year, in 2000, also the Passetto was cleaned and consolidated, and a partial reopening of its gallery to the castle's visitors was scheduled, although today only small groups are let in, for security reasons, and visits must be booked in advance.

at its eastern end, the Passetto reaches the Castle crossing the moat →


Lo vi sap ch'ed quer corritore
Che, cuperto qua e l da un tettarello,
Da San Pietro va gi ssin a Castello
Dove tira a le vorte aria mijore?

Mo tte lo dico in du' battute: quello
Lo ti pper uso suo Nostro Siggnore,
Si mai per quarche ppicca o bell'umore
Je criccassi de f a nisconnarello.

Drent'a Castello p giuc a bon gioco
Er Zanto-padre, si je fanno spalla
Uno pe pparte er cantiggnere e er coco.

E sotto la banniera bianca e gialla
P d commidamente da quer loco
Binedizzione e cannonate a ppalla.


Would you like to know what's that corridor,
Covered here and there by a small roof,
That runs from St.Peter's to the Castle,
Where sometimes the air is fresher? 1

I'll tell you in short:
Our Lord 2 keeps it for his personal use,
In the case one of his whims
Makes him feel like playing hide and seek. 3

Inside the Castle, the Holy Father
Can play an easy game, supported on either side
By the wine-cellar keeper and the cook.

And below the white and yellow flag, 4
From that site he can easily deliver
Blessings as well as cannon-shots.
Giuseppe Gioachino Belli, December 17th 1845
1. - With the ironic meaning of "where the situation is safer".
2. - The pope.
3. - Being sought by enemies.
4. - The Vatican's own, that flew above the castle.

more pictures and information about the wall and Borgo district
can be found in the section about the popes' walls