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Like in “Angels and Demons”


How are you roaring engines? Yesterday I saw a spectacular movie at the cinema of the 47 Boutique Hotel: Angels and Demons, do you remember? Some scenes were shot in Rome, so I decided to move my hood over there and get lost between history and legend, come with me!

Here we are again at Castel Sant’Angelo, but this time we will explore the whole village that from this point expands to the Vatican, starting from the famous Passetto (also found in the movie): an almost 800m-long curtain wall, where you can enter after passing through the door of Castel Sant’Angelo, through the entrance of the Bastione di San Marco, the one with a small dome on top. The path arises on part of the old defensive walls built by Leo IV and inspired popular fantasies and legends over the years. It is said, that not all the pontiffs used the Passetto di Borgo as a way of salvation. For example, while the story tells that Pope Clement VII, in 1527, crossed it to escape the capture of the Lanzichenecchi, it seems that the little “chaste” Rodrigo Borgia, known as Pope Alexander VI (and passed to the honours of history also for his many love affairs), used the Passetto to furtively reach its private apartments and spend the night with his lovers. These are popular legends from which sayings and superstitions were born, such as the superstitious anecdote according to which the Passetto di Borgo would have “miraculous” powers for virility. In fact, the legends says that by following the eight hundred meter walkway 77 times in a row, back and forth, men are able to recover the lost virility. In the movie I saw last night, the two protagonists did not cross the small passage 77 times, but used it (just once, fortunately!) to reach the private library of the Pope, through a «crenellated bastion that looked like a Roman aqueduct» (wrongly). We can say that Dawn Brown took a poetic license: common adventurers like us will not end up in the middle of the reading time of the Pope crossing the small Passetto!!!


Once passed through the passetto, we find ourselves in Borgo Pio; the “Borgo” consists of a street that connects via di Porta Castello to Via di Porta Angelica and its toponym derives from the name of the Pope who had it built, Pius IV, with a bull issued on the 5th of December 1565. The document described in detail the works for the new village, made pleasant, healthy and privileged; it also decreed that it has to be raised above the rest of the city, in order to eliminate the risks deriving from the floods of the Tiber: for this reason, he ordered that a sewerage system had to be built there. Crossing Borgo Pio, where the road widens and create a small square (Piazza del Catalone), we find a rather singular fountain, which is isolated in the middle of the entrance to the square and recalls a Roman aedicula, those that are usually placed along the consular streets, dedicated to pagan gods.

The fountain, surrounded by two small columns joined by an iron bar, consists of a simple rectangular travertine aedicule, with tympanum at the top, leaning against a brick construction. The upper arch has the papal coat of arms, with the papal tiara and the crossed keys, while the central part is formed by a simple spout that pours water into the underlying basin. Yes, I know you are all looking at me bad … I’ve always told you that the water from the fountains of Rome is among the best in the world and today I take you in front of a fountain with the words ACQUA MARCIA (rotten water in English) on it, which of course refers to its water. Actually, this sign suggests the dating of the fountain: it was built around 1870 by Pope Pius IX during restoration works of the ancient Aqua Marcia and later called Acqua Pia from the name of the pontiff. In fact, Acqua Marcia (in Latin Aqua Marcia) is the third aqueduct of ancient Rome, built in 144 BC and is about 90 km long, commissioned by the praetor Quinto Marcio Re. In order to compete the fountain, the expiry of the magistrature was even delayed. So, my thirsty engines, do not be deceived by the name: the water is really refreshing. 

What do my lights see? Let’s see if you are careful too. Try to search for a circle engraved in a stone on the walls nearby. Did you find it? I know that this strange disk does not tell you much, but in the past it had a great importance in the life of the Romans.

The famine in Rome limited a lot the amount of flour available to the bakers in the district and the selling price of a loaf was established by law. Therefore, the crafty bakers, made smaller loaves in order to make more money, to the detriment of the poor buyers. The Pope noticed this and intervened with a drastic and very simple solution: he created this disk which represented the exact size of the loaf sold, with lots of reinforced edges to prevent tampering.

The “oddities” of this place do not end here. Do you know who Annone is? No, I do not mean the Carthaginian general, but something or rather someone much bigger. Annone is the name given to the very particular white elephant, a gift from King Manuel d’Aviz of Portugal for the coronation of Pope Leo X.

The ship carrying Annone (named like that in honor of the Carthaginian general) arrived from Lisbon to Rome on 12 March 1514. The gigantic animal was carried in procession through the streets of the capital, along with two leopards, a panther, some parrots, rare turkeys and Indian horses. The Pope waited for the arrival of the procession in Castel Sant’Angelo; once in his presence, Annone knelt three times in homage, rubbing his trunk on his slippers; then, obeying a nod from his Indian caretaker, it sucked up the water with its trunk from a bucket and sprayed it not only against the cardinals, but also against the crowd. The custody of Annone was reserved for the “favorites” of the Pope. Being close to the elephant was a sign of great prestige. Raffaello Sanzio was the lucky one and he painted Annone in a picture after its death (this work was not preserved). Also the poet Pietro Aretino was kissed by the fortune and made it the subject of his satirical comedy “The last will and testament of Annone, the elephant”, in which he told the vices of the Vatican hierarchy, cardinals and nobles. Annone lived in a particular structure located in the Belvedere courtyard, but later it was moved to a building between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Apostolic Palace, near Borgo Sant’Angelo.

For a certain period, Annone was the mascot of Rome and the Pope, a little bit just like me inside the family of 47, even if I prefer to run around the splendid court instead of “watering” the spectators !!

Now I go back to the hotel, I want to understand something more about Rome of the popes, but above all I have to taste the chef’s new dishes…