THE WALLS OF THE POPES
part I

the Passetto and Borgo district


~ page 2 ~




We can now cross the square by the archways, and start walking along Borgo Sant'Angelo, by the wall. The several archways in the middle of the square are not original ones: they were opened in the early 20th century, to improve the busy traffic; times, as can be told from old maps, such the one whose detail is featured on the right, testify that in the days of old only one gate was found here.

The Passetto can be followed along its inner (southern) side, because due to changes in time, some old houses of Borgo now lean against the outer side of the wall, or were built very close to it.

the Passetto (here referred to as corridor of Alexander the sixth) →
at its end by St.Angelo Castle, which in 1551 was still lacking its bastions

Over the centuries, the Passetto underwent alterations almost constantly.


the passage through the wall
By the end of the 1400s, pope Alexander VI had the passage along the wall doubled: an upper footway was added to the extant gallery through the brick structure: from the outside, you can see the narrow windows which give light to the latter.
This hidden 'corridor' runs from the castle all the way down to the Vatican, as a real escape route; only a few years later, in 1527, pope Clement VII and his court actually used it for this purpose, when Rome was sacked by the mercenaries sent by Charles V. But not everybody made it: a notary called Alberto Serra da Monferrato is remembered for having just reached the end of the passage, when he was stricken by a heart attack ...and lost his life all the same!

The passage, which both names of the wall (i.e. Passetto and Corridore di Borgo) refer to, had become particularly unsteady. After having undergone restoration on the occasion of the Jubilee Year 2000, it was partly reopened to the public after a very long time. However, visits are still now restricted to the first stretch of the passage, and have to be booked in advance as, for safety reasons, only a small number of visitors is let in at the same time.

As you come to the first crossing, you'll find a double archway with a central pillar [map ref. 2]. Take a look at the wall texture in the bottom part of the Passetto: irregular patches of square blocks alternate with similar patches of bricks, and others with rough stones, and so on.
This clearly shows how many times this wall collapsed and was rebuilt over the parts that had been left standing, yet using different materials. The earliest stones may likely date back to the Middle Ages.
A madonnella (i.e. a small shrine dedicated to the Virgin Mary) hangs centrally on the pillar. You'll see a much better one by the archway on the corner of vicolo d'Orfeo: it features an 18th century image encased in a wooden frame, with a blue background; the original painting, though, has been recently removed and replaced with a faithful copy, in order to preserve it.
Most archways, located by the crossing with each of the lanes that run through Borgo Nuovo, bear the coat of arms of Pius IV, the pope from the Medici family who built the new wall (see page 1); one of the lanes was even named after his device [map ref. 3], vicolo delle Palline ("Small Balls Lane"), referring to the six spheres on the family's shield. However, this is not the only papal coat of arms that hangs from the Passetto: further towards its Vatican end, you'll also notice the shield of Alexander VI (1492-1503), from the Borgia family, especially as you move towards the Vatican end of the wall.

coats of arms of popes
← Pius IV and Alexander VI ↑


a view of Borgo district's old houses;
the passetto can be seen in the background
Walking under either of the aforesaid passages, enter Borgo Nuovo and spend a few minutes taking a stroll through this district: its late medieval street plan, with long and straight parallel roads (each of which called borgo = "borough", whence the name of the district) crossed at right angles by narrow lanes, has remained unchanged.
Many original buildings still look old, despite alterations have been carried out over the years, and looking through open windows of private houses you'll see how some ceilings are still crossed by wooden beams.

For a very long time, this district has been crowded mainly with taverns and hostels for foreigners such as pilgrims, merchants, students and, especially over the 18th and 19th centuries, travellers; today such trend has remained substantially unmodified.

Approaching the Vatican, Borgo Sant'Angelo changes its name into via dei Corridori, related once again to the old wall, and the enormous colonnade that surrounds St.Peter's Square comes into sight; the columns, appear even mightier due to the narrow size of the street, which enhances the visual impact of Gianlorenzo Bernini's work.

Just past the small Fountain of the Tiaras, which mimics the traditional papal headgear (see details in Fountains, part II page 4 and picture in The Rioni, Borgo), just before St.Peter's Square, a further double archway connects the two sides of the Passetto wall [map ref. 4]; one of the two archways was opened by Pius IV in 1563, as a large inscribed plaque says, for the benefit of the many pilgrims who reached the city along via Angelica, the long and straight road that reaches this spot; by the time it was opened, via Angelica ran straight ahead, merging into the Cassian Way about 2½ km - 1½ mi further north. The other twin archway was opened in 1933, merely for traffic reasons.

the Vatican end of the Passetto; the Fountain of the Tiaras
stands in the bottom right corner

Porta Viridaria, behind the columns
Here the Passetto meets the modern boundary of the Vatican City.

If you walk beyond the large newspaper kiosk, in the narrow space between the columns and the wall, just before the small Vatican Post Office, on the right you will notice a further gate, closed by a large door and overlooked on each side by a square tower: this is Porta Viridaria [map ref. 5].
During the Middle Ages, this was the only official gate of the Passetto, although it is not known when exactly it was opened; its name comes from the Latin viridis ("green"), referring to the Vatican's gardens that once were beyond this door. It was also called Porta San Pellegrino, from the many pilgrims who entered the city on this side of town. Other names it took through the years were Porta degli Svizzeri ("Swiss Gate"), from the nearby barracks of the Vatican's Swiss Guard and, amazingly, Porta Merdaria ("Shitty Gate"!), an infamous nickname which may likely be a corruption of its official name. Above the archway hangs the coat of arms of pope Alexander VI, dated 1492, the same year of his election, when he likely had the gate refurbished; about seventy years later it was closed, and was never used again.