The Ponte Sant'Angelo: From the Pons Aelius to the Bridge of the Passion
Emma Schmidt |
Hadrian Meets Bernini on Rome’s Most Storied Bridge
Ponte Sant’ Angelo is arguably Rome’s most storied bridge — it has existed since the early 2nd century C.E., though changes have been made since its initial construction.
The bridge was designed by Demetrianus, personal architect to the emperor Hadrian, and was completed in 134 C.E. Contrary to popular belief, the bridge was actually created before Hadrian’s mausoleum; bricks stamped with the year 120 and 123 C.E. prove that the bridge predates what is now Castel Sant’ Angelo. The bridge was likely used to transport materials from central Rome to the construction site across the river, a part of Rome that at that time was neither inhabited nor developed. The bridge was called the Pons Aelius, named for Hadrian, also known as Publius Aelius Hadrianus.
After the construction of the Basilica of St. Peter in the 4th century C.E., the bridge became essential as a route from the center of Rome to the Basilica, thus its name, Pons Sancti Petri. The name “Sant’ Angelo” came two centuries later: in 590 CE, while taking part in a penitential procession at the site, Pope Gregory I saw the Archangel Michael appear on top of the mausoleum. Gregory saw the angel sheath a bloody sword, and took it as a sign that the plague which had been ravaging Rome for years was finally over. In remembrance of this event, Gregory topped the mausoleum with the statue of an angel, and began to call the structure Castel Sant’ Angelo. By association with the castle, the bridge began to be called Ponte Sant’ Angelo. The name was solidified by the addition of the statues of angels in the 16th century.
Small changes were made to the bridge and its surroundings in the 15th and 16th centuries. The most monumental change to date was Pope Clement IX’s 1668 commission of Gian Lorenzo Bernini to replace the stucco angels with massive marble angels. Clement wanted the approach from central Rome towards the Basilica of St. Peter to be more magnificent and more spiritual; he chose the drama of the passion as the subject matter for the angels, so that the bridge might become the iter dolorosum or via salvationis.
The angels tell the story of the Passion of Christ chronologically, beginning at the righthand side of the southern end of the bridge and zigzagging towards Castel Sant’Angelo; the inscription below each angel describes a moment in the Passion. The inscriptions paraphrase, in Latin, passages from the Bible in which the Passion is described; many of the quotations can also be found directly in the Vulgate Bible.
Angel with the Column: TRONUS MEUS IN COLUMNA (“My throne is upon the column,” i.e. the column at which Christ was scourged)