Vatican — Castel Sant'Angelo

Castel Sant'Angelo and Puccini's "Tosca"

Castel Sant'Angelo, former Hadrian's Mausoleum, built in 117-139 A.D.

Every time I listen to Puccini's "La Tosca" I cannot but think of Castel Sant'Angelo. This massive construction, the second largest architectural structure in Rome after the Colosseum, looms high above the Tiber river and narrates the story of Rome from imperial to modern times.

It was first named Hadrian's Mausoleum, since it was built by the Emperor Hadrian to house his remains and those of his family, the future emperors of Rome until Caracalla. Begun in 117, it was completed by the Emperor Antoninus Pius in 139 A.D.

The cylindrical structure built over a square base became a papal fortress in the 6th century, and was renamed as Castel Sant'Angelo after the huge bronze angel at its top. The building was later incorporated in the Aurelian walls and in the ninth century a tower was added. Century after century, Castel Sant'Angelo became increasingly fortified and battlements were added in the 11th century.

In 1277, under Pope Nicholas II, Castel Sant'Angelo became part of the Vatican, and the papal chambers were added. The castle was a fortified place for the pontiffs in time of danger, and it was connected to the Vatican by a famous secret passage running along the top of the encircling walls of the Vatican.

The fortress has corner towers, gun platforms and barracks. During the sack of Rome in 1527 Pope Clement VII took refuge here to escape the German mercenaries that ravaged the city. Since the pope had temporal powers, the castle also housed a torture chamber and a prison, where numerous political and anti-religion prisoners were incarcerated, including historical figures, like the unhappy Beatrice Cenci and legendary Count Cagliostro.

The castle today has five floors and houses a national Museum. At the bottom there are the winding ramps dating back to Roman times; on the second floor you can still see the prison cells, as well as the storerooms for oil and grain. The third is the military floor with two large courtyards. On the fourth, the papal floor, there are the loggia of Julius II by papal architect Bramante, the papal apartments frescoed by Giulio Romano and painters of Raphael's school, the treasure room (Sala del Tesoro - not open to the public!), and the room of Cagliostro the famous magician and alchemist who was imprisoned and tortured there in the 18th century.

At the very top, right under the huge bronze angel, there is a terrace, where there is also a charming al fresco bar. From there, sipping on iced coffee, you can enjoy a stupendous panorama of the city. The view in the evening, when Rome is lit up, is particularly enchanting.

Puccini's "La Tosca" revolves around this building at the time when it was an active prison. The male protagonist, painter Mario Cavaradossi, ends up being executed on the top terrace, while the female protagonist, the diva Floria Tosca, throws herself to her death from the ramparts of the castle, after she discovers that her lover has been shot.

The story of Tosca goes back to the times after Napoleon, when the powers of the popes were restored in Rome after the fall of the Roman Republic created by Napoleon. As the opera opens, Cesare Angelotti, a political prisoner just escaped from Castel Sant'Angelo, rushes into the church of Sant'Andrea della Valle to hide. His friend, the painter Mario Cavaradossi, is working there on a portrait of Mary Magdalene. Cavaradossi's beloved, the diva Floria Tosca, becomes jealous of the image he is painting, and comes in to question him. After she leaves, cannon shots from Castel Sant'Angelo signal that the police have discovered Angelotti's escape. Soon after Angelotti and Cavaradossi flee to Mario's villa.

Baron Scarpia, a prelate and chief of the secret police, also enamored with Tosca, tells her that Mario is unfaithful to her and persuades her to reveal where the two revolutionaries are. Act II takes place in the Farnese Palace in Rome, where sadistic Scarpia anticipates the pleasure of conquering Tosca. Mario, in the meantime, has been caught and is being interrogated under torture. While Mario screams, Tosca reveals Angelotti's hiding place to save him. But at this point people rush in with the news that Napoleon has won the battle of Marengo, and that Scarpia's side has been defeated.

Mario is dragged to the prison in Castel Sant'Angelo. Scarpia suggests that Tosca yield to him in exchange of her lover's life. She sings the magnificent "Vissi d'arte," describing how she had always lived for art and love. Scarpia tries to seduce her, but there is another interruption: Angelotti has killed himself. Finally, in order to save her lover, Tosca resorts to cunning and pretends to agree to Scarpia's proposition in exchange for a safe-conduct for her and Mario. Scarpia promises that Mario's execution is to be a mock one on the roof of Castel Sant'Angelo, after which he will be free. Right after Scarpia has written the safe-conduct, Tosca kills him with a knife.

In Act III, at dawn, Mario awaits execution in Castel Sant'Angelo and bribes the jailer to convey a farewell note to Tosca. He gives in to despair and sings one of the most moving arias that Puccini ever wrote, "E lucean le stelle." Suddenly Tosca runs in and tells him she has killed Scarpia. Mario caresses the hands that murdered for his sake (O dolci mani"). Tosca tells Mario of her plan to flee together. Mario understands that Scarpia's safe-conduct is false, but he does not show his premonition to Tosca. As the firing squad appears, the diva tells Mario how to fake his death.

The soldiers fire and depart. When Mario fails to move, Tosca discovers that she had been tricked by Scarpia and that the bullets, alas, were real. When gendarmes rush in to arrest Tosca for Scarpia's murder, she defies Scarpia to meet her before God and leaps to her death jumping over the ramparts.

L'Italo Americano is a weekly newspaper serving the Italian-American community of Los Angeles area since 1908.