by Alberto Manodori Sagredo
The Aelian Bridge – known as Ponte Sant’Angelo since the Middle Ages for its connection to the history of the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo – was built between 133 and 134 AD by Emperor Hadrian, to link the left bank of the Tiber with his mausoleum, the monumental and majestic tomb he had built, emulating the mausoleum Augustus had erected along the Via Flaminia (now Via del Corso). It was a bridge fit for an imperial funeral!
During the Middle Ages the bridge became particularly important because it was the only controlled passageway for pilgrims going to Saint Peter’s Basilica – first the one built by Constantine I, and then the current, 16th-century one – to visit the apostle’s grave.
Dante mentions the bridge in his “Inferno” (Canto 18, 25-33), describing the two flows of pilgrims who, on the occasion of the first Jubilee convoked by Pope Boniface VIII in the year 1300, walked in parallel queues, coming and going.
Ponte Sant’Angelo is to this day the most beautiful bridge in the world. Its regularity, symmetry, openness to light, and perfect distance between arches and water surface make it unique… not to mention the precious materials it is made of, and the monumental impact it has altogether. Last but not least, it is the bridge that connects the Eternal City to Saint Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, where the mortal remains of the first Vicar of Christ were laid to rest, and where the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church resides.
The highlight of the structure are the statues of the angels flanking the marble parapets, which seem to frame the river as it flows, visible through the elegant wrought iron grating.
There are ten statues, full of movement and lightness, both in their position and gestures and in the way their clothes are animated by the wind, symbolizing their participation in the Passion of Christ. The ten angels stand on tall bases, which originally supported the wooden columns of the bridge’s roofing.
Some of them look serene, in their certainty that Christ will resurrect; others seem to hardly contain the compassion and pity for his suffering.
Each of the ten, candid white, marble angels holds an instrument of the Passion: they present them to passersby, as if along the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, or a Via Crucis like the one on the Sacred Mountain of Varallo.
This was one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s most insightful ideas: to create a Via Crucis where the instruments of the Passion could be contemplated, to repent, to prepare for the Confession as one walked towards the Vatican Basilica, towards the first of Christ’s disciples, the Holy See, Corpus Domini, and salvation.
In 1667, Clement IX entrusted Bernini with the task of sculpting the angels for Ponte Sant’Angelo, for which the Pope had already purchased ten blocks of marble.
By 1668, Bernini had decided that the angels would forma a “living” Via Crucis – with spectators participating in the suspension of disbelief that makes art become a real part of life, like in theater. He then ordered that eight of the large marble blocks be delivered to some of the sculptors who shared his style and vision. He kept two of them for himself, which he would transform into the angel holding the INRI superscription and the one holding the crown of thorns.
In 1669, before dying in December, Clement IX saw the statues by Bernini and decided they were too magnificent for the bridge: he had them replaced by copies by the master’s collaborators, and the originals were eventually placed in the church of Sant’Andrea delle Fratte, a stone’s throw from Piazza di Spagna.
By 1670, all the sculptures were completed and placed on the bridge, where to this day the angels with the instruments of the Passion of Christ accompany those directed to Saint Peter’s Basilica along the ancient jubilar road.
At the end of the bridge on the bank opposite the Castle, the statues of Saint Peter holding the keys of heaven (by Il Lorenzetto, 1534) and Saint Paul holding the sward (by Paolo Romano, 1464) stand on bases inscribed with the words “Hinc humilibus venia” and “Hinc retributio superbis”, making the bridge a symbolic passageway where the humble and the proud are reminded of what they respectively deserve.
The bases on which the angels were erected are also inscribed with verses from the Bible, transforming the instruments of the Passion into instances of Christ’s majesty, overturning their material function to the point they become symbols of divine glory. At the same time, each quotation prompts the repentant to consider their sins, and to conform to the teachings of Jesus in the spirit of the famous De imitatione Christi.
The first angel, by Antonio Raggi, holds up the flogging column to which Jesus was tied. The inscription reads: “My throne is upon a column”.
The second angel, by Lazzaro Morelli, contemplates with obvious sadness the whips that wounded the Lord. The inscription reads: “I am ready for the scourge”.
The third angel, sculpted by Paolo Naldini and perfected by Bernini himself, presents the crown of thorns, a symbol of the vane blindness of the men who were unable to recognize Christ’s authority. The inscription reads: “The thorn is fastened upon me”.
The fourth angel, by Cosimo Fancelli, observes with pity the face of Christ impressed in blood on the Veil of Veronica. The inscription reads: “Look upon the face of your Christ”.
The fifth angel, by Paolo Naldini, carries the garment and dice. The inscription reads: “For my clothing they cast lots”.
The sixth angel, by Girolamo Lucenti, holds the nails that pierced the hands and feet of Jesus. The inscription reads: “They will look upon me whom they have pierced”.
The seventh angel, by Ercole Ferrata, holds the cross, as the strongest symbol of the Passion as well as an icon of faith in Him. The inscription reads: “Dominion rests on his shoulders”.
The eight angel – which was officially entrusted to Giulio Cartari, but has recently been established was the work of Bernini himself, replicating the work he had done for the original in Sant’Andrea delle Fratte – uncurls the INRI superscription, casting his gaze to the skies, the Kingdom of Christ. The inscription reads: “God has reigned from the tree” (referencing the wood of the cross).
The ninth angel, by Antonio Giorgetti, observes with an expression of deep sorrow the sponge attached to the end of his stick, so real you expect sour wine to drip from it. The inscription reads: “They gave me vinegar to drink”.
The tenth and last angel, by Domenico Guidi, stares in misery at the point of the lance he carries, lifting it as if to mimic the moment when the spear wounded the heart of Jesus. The inscription reads: “You have ravished my heart”, reminding pilgrims of the pain men’s sins caused Jesus.
All the angels stand, faithful to tradition, on marble clouds of varying degrees of fullness. Let’s not forget that, since the statues are set on high pedestals, passersby see them from below, against the Roman sky.
Thus the devotional, painful journey along the Via Crucis respects and evokes, through the symbology of these instruments, the chronological and narrative succession of the moments in the Passion of Christ.