More details View of inside the Passetto, the secret passage between Vatican City and Castel Sant'Angelo in Rome, Italy

The Passetto: Escape Route of Popes in Times Past

(Read the article on one page)

The Passetto di Borgo (also known simply as the Passetto, which may be translated as a small passage ) is a corridor that connects the Vatican City, more specifically St. Peter’s Basilica, with the Castel Sant’ Angelo. This passageway is found on top of the old Vatican wall, and was used by the popes as a secret escape route in times of trouble. One of the most well-known incidents when the Passetto was used happened in 1527, when Rome was sacked, and the pope, Clement VII, was forced to flee from his residence to the safety of the Castel Sant’ Angelo via this secret passageway.

Old Wall

The walls on which the Passetto was built on is said to date back to the second half of the 6 th century AD. In 576, the king of the Ostrogoths, Totila, had taken Rome, and decided to build a low wall by the tomb of Hadrian, linking it to the city walls built by Aurelian three centuries before. Additionally, the tomb was transformed into a fortress. This ancient wall, however, crumbled shortly after, and only a few stone blocks of this structure has survived till this day.

Totila razes the walls of Florence: illumination from the Chigi ms of Villani's Cronica.

Totila razes the walls of Florence: illumination from the Chigi ms of Villani's Cronica. ( Public Domain )

New Wall

Construction of a new wall began following the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor by Pope Leo III in 800 AD. As Rome was considered the religious capital of his empire, Charlemagne ordered that a wall be built to defend the tomb of St. Peter. It seems that this wall too did not last long, as the people of Rome tore it down shortly after the death of Leo III in 816. The people of the city were fearful that should the Castel Sant’ Angelo be turned into a new center of power under the rule of the pope and the emperor, Rome’s autonomy would be eroded.

The Passetto.

The Passetto. Photo source: ( Public Domain )

As St. Peter’s Basilica lacked a defensive wall, it was easily attacked by Saracen pirates on two occasions, the first being in 830, whilst the second took place 16 years later. By comparison, the rest of Rome was effectively protected from the pirates by the walls built by Aurelian. As a result of these attacks, Pope Leo IV, who is claimed to have been urged by the emperor, Lothair I, had a defensive wall built around the basilica and its grounds around 850. This wall measured about 3 km (1.8 mi) in length, and had 44 towers.

The view from Castel Sant'Angelo towards Vatican City where the wall can be seen.

The view from Castel Sant'Angelo towards Vatican City where the wall can be seen. ( CC BY 3.0 )

Permanent Wall Connections

The Passetto was not part of Leo IV’s design, and was a later addition. It was in 1377, after the popes’ return to Rome following their self-exile in Avignon, France, that the idea of the Passetto was conceived. The popes realized that a connection between their residence and the Castel Sant’ Angelo was important, should they need to flee to safety.

Castel Sant'Angelo from the bridge. The top statue depicts the angel from whom the building derives its name. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

Thus, it was Pope Nicholas III, who reigned between 1277 and 1280, who had the first walkway built on top of the portion of the wall that connected St. Peter’s Basilica and the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Some further alterations were carried out by Pope Alexander VI towards the end of the 15 th century.

Pope Nicholas III Cameo

Pope Nicholas III Cameo (Public Domain )

Sack of Rome

The Passetto was most famously used by Pope Clement VII when Rome was sacked in 1527. On May 6 of that year, the landsknecht, who were German mercenaries, entered and sacked Rome. These mercenaries were based in the north of Italy, and were threatening mutiny due to a lack of provisions and pay.

Sebastiano del Piombo (Italian) - Pope Clement VII.

Sebastiano del Piombo (Italian) - Pope Clement VII. (Public Domain )

Although a sum of 100,000 ducats was paid, the landsknecht nevertheless marched against Rome. They arrived before the city walls on the 5 th of May, which were left almost undefended, as an attack from this army was not expected. For eight days, Rome was sacked. The pope, however, survived, as he was led by the Swiss Guard across the Passetto to the safety of the Castel Sant’ Angelo. Of the 189 Swiss Guards on duty that day, only 42 survived.

Register to become part of our active community, get updates, receive a monthly newsletter, and enjoy the benefits and rewards of our member point system OR just post your comment below as a Guest.

Top New Stories

Inside one of the tunnels under Rome, Italy.
Few visitors recognize that there is a forgotten world below the Roman Colosseum and Forum. The ancient maze of tunnels and quarries date back to the very beginning of this famous city. Locals, on the other hand, remember the existence of the underground pathways every time one of the ancient tunnels collapses, damaging the structures above. Hundreds of buildings and streets have fallen victim to the decaying tunnels.

Myths & Legends

The Smelliest Women of Ancient Greece: Jason and the Argonauts Get Fragrant
We all know Aphrodite, Greek goddess of love and beauty, made sure that she was worshipped by punishing those who ignored her altars. One brief appearance of this wrath in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts turned into a particularly fragrant episode.

Ancient Places

Inside one of the tunnels under Valetta, Malta.
Hordes of tourists visit the Mediterranean island of Malta each year to enjoy the above ground attractions the country has to offer such as breath-taking sandy beaches, historical buildings, and traditional cuisine. Yet, there is also a subterranean world hidden beneath the island’s surface. These are the rumored secret tunnels of Malta.

Our Mission

At Ancient Origins, we believe that one of the most important fields of knowledge we can pursue as human beings is our beginnings. And while some people may seem content with the story as it stands, our view is that there exists countless mysteries, scientific anomalies and surprising artifacts that have yet to be discovered and explained.

The goal of Ancient Origins is to highlight recent archaeological discoveries, peer-reviewed academic research and evidence, as well as offering alternative viewpoints and explanations of science, archaeology, mythology, religion and history around the globe.

We’re the only Pop Archaeology site combining scientific research with out-of-the-box perspectives.

By bringing together top experts and authors, this archaeology website explores lost civilizations, examines sacred writings, tours ancient places, investigates ancient discoveries and questions mysterious happenings. Our open community is dedicated to digging into the origins of our species on planet earth, and question wherever the discoveries might take us. We seek to retell the story of our beginnings. 

Ancient Image Galleries

View from the Castle Gate (Burgtor). (Public Domain)
Door surrounded by roots of Tetrameles nudiflora in the Khmer temple of Ta Phrom, Angkor temple complex, located today in Cambodia. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Cable car in the Xihai (West Sea) Grand Canyon (CC BY-SA 4.0)
Next article