|THE POPES' WALLS
the Passetto and Borgo district
~ page 1 ~
This part of the tour starts from Sant'Angelo Castle, reachable on foot from the city center by crossing the beautiful Sant'Angelo Bridge. It can also be reached by bus: several lines (32, 49, 70, 87, 280, 492, 913, 990, and others) stop in piazza Cavour, the large square just behind the castle; subway line A (Lepanto station), instead, stops at about 800 metres - ½ mile.
The end of the tour is by the right colonnade of St.Peter's square
detail of Borgo district, from Sant'Angelo Castle (upper left corner)
to the Vatican (right), as shown in a map of Rome dated 1606
As you walk round Sant'Angelo Castle in clockwise direction, along the outer side of the moat, you will notice a tall wall with several archways, linking to the castle [map ref. 1]: this is the Passetto ("small passage"), which used to be also called corridore di Borgo ("Borgo's corridor").
detail of the Passetto: the thin windows just below
the embattlements give light to the hidden passage
From a historical point of view, this wall has already been dealt with by another paragraph of this website (see The Passetto in the Curious and Unusual section), so only the essential notes will be repeated in this page, with more reference illustrations, and facts about Borgo district.
The Passetto is considered the oldest part of the walls enclosing the Vatican area, because pope Leo IV (9th century) had it built in place of an earlier and shorter wall by the Ostrogoth king Totila (6th century), which had alredy crumbled and been rebuilt a number of times.
The Passetto, though, was only a small part of Leo IV's wall, which ran all around the grounds of the ancient St.Peter's basilica. This huge church had already been built in the 4th century AD, on the site where Peter, apostle and first pope, had been crucified and buried: the basilica had become a place of worship, visited by crowds of pilgrims coming from many lands.
Nevertheless, it should be noted that, by the time of Leo IV, the popes did not dwell in the Vatican area, which was only the site of St.Peter's tomb, as their residence used to be on the other side of town, in the Lateran, a complex of buildings which included St.John Lateran's basilica; no sooner than during the late 14th century, when papacy came back to Rome after having moved to Avignon (France) for almost 70 years, the popes chose to live inside the Vatican.
So, the wall was built to protect the holy shrine of St.Peter and its environment, not the pope. In fact, the Vatican area was barely inhabited; on this site, in the north-western outskirts of early mediaeval Rome, where centuries earlier emperor Nero's circus used to stand, only foreign merchants and pilgrims camped by the basilica.
in 1577 St.Peter's still had the
original mediaeval structure; only the
apse showed signs of changes to come
Before Leo IV had his project carried out, this area was rather unprotected, since the city boundaries (Aurelian's walls) ran by the river, and the Janiculum hill did not reach but the fringes of the Vatican. Therefore, this side of town was the weakest point of Rome's powerful defensive system: less than 100 years before, the Saracens had easily made their way through here, and had sacked the city and the basilica. This clearly shows how important Leo IV's walls became for the safety of this area.
After the Vatican had been granted a defensive system, more and more inns and taverns started to rise, and the neighborhood became a real citadel, called Città Leonina ("Leo's City"). But only travellers and pilgrims dwelt here, as Leo's City remained divided from the actual Rome beyond the Tiber.
Only in 1585, after eight centuries, the citadel officially became the 14th town's district.
Before we leave the castle for the tour, follow its perimeter for a few more metres, up to the point of the western bastion [map ref. a].
By the late 15th century, Borgo district expanded beyond the Passetto; when pope Pius IV (1559-65) encircled the Vatican with a new set of walls, he also built a wider boundary for the citadel, running from this spot (i.e. the castle's western bastion) straight to the Vatican, more or less along the route of the present via G.Vitelleschi. The houses between the Passetto and the new wall became Borgo Nuovo ("New Borgo"), while the original nucleus of the district in front of St.Peter's was renamed Borgo Vecchio ("Old Borgo"). Two main gates, Porta Castello and Porta Angelica, were opened along the new boundary.
Unfortunately, this wall was completely dismantled in the late 19th century, to build the present neighborhood, needed to provide accomodation for Rome's growing population.
Borgo Vecchio, Borgo Nuovo, the old Passetto and
the wall of Pius IV (upper arrow) with its two gates
marked in red, in a map dated 1748
(above) the district as seen from St.Peter's in the early 1900's:
Old Borgo is still standing at the bottom of the square;
(below) the same view as above today shows the deep cut through the district,
carried out in the 1930's, after the concordat had been signed
(by courtesy of Kalervo Koskimies)
The original Borgo district would have remained almost intact, if in the 1930s its central part, known as spina di Borgo ("Borgo's spine"), had not been taken down quite abruptly for the opening of via della Conciliazione. This wide avenue, now connecting St.Peter's Square to the Tiber's west bank, was planned soon after the Italian government and the Vatican had signed the concordat, after which the avenue was named, in 1929: its purpose was to act as a lavish approach to the basilica. This was done without any consideration for the impact that such a radical change would have brought to the site; in fact, the avenue badly spoilt the original awing effect of the vast square suddenly appearing from the shadows of the narrow lanes.
Most of Borgo Nuovo was preserved, while only the part of Borgo Vecchio between the avenue and the river was left standing.
In more recent times this project was strongly criticized, but nothing could be done to retrieve the lost buildings.