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Posted on Dec 31, 2009 in War College

War Museums in the Boot: A Traveler’s Guide to the Military History of Italy – Part 3

By Peter Suciu

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The massive gateway at Porta San Sebastiano looks as defendable as it was when it was built as part of the Aurelian Walls around the Eternal City of Rome.

(Editor’s Note: This is the third and final part of author Peter Suciu’s three-part series on war museums in Italy.)

Roman Holiday
Since ancient times it was said "all roads lead to Rome," and the Eternal City is easily one of the richest cities in Europe historically. From the Aurelian Walls, which were built by the Emperor Aurelian to protect the city from barbarian invasions, to the Roman Forum, along with the Coliseum, Palentine Hill and other reminders of the ancient past, the city is truly "eternal." It is hard to walk in many parts with the walls that encompass the city without finding reminders of its past glories.

But it is well beyond the scope of this article to discuss of these, and while any of the above (as well as other ruins) are most certainly worth a visit, for true military history buffs, there are really three main points of interest that shouldn’t be overlooked.

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Porta San Sebastiano and Museo della Mura
While it is hard not to see part of the Aurelian Walls – which are today much further out from the original city’s Servian Wall – one part to take a much closer look is the Porta San Sebastinao, which is one of the fortified gateways into the city. Today this remains the largest and best preserved gateway, and seeing it in person you might feel compelled to yell, "I am Spartacus," even if that event took place by the gates of the vastly smaller Servian Walls. And to get a full sense of the scale of the various walls, and a history a visit to the nearby Museo dell Mura will practically have you calling out, "Emperor Aurelian, build up this wall."

Castel Sant’Angelo
This Medieval fortress played prominently in the movie adaptation of Dan Brown’s Angles and Demons, and in the Middle Ages this structure had served as a refuge for the Pope in times of danger. In fact, there is an elevated section of the city wall that connects nearby Vatican City to the Castel Sant’Angelo, and this was built in 1277 to get the Pope safely to the fortress.

But interestingly this mighty fortress within Rome wasn’t originally constructed to be a citadel. Instead, its construction began in 139 CE to serve as the mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian. Somewhat fittingly given that Hadrian is remembered for his defensive structures, it was the Emperor Aurelian who incorporated the structure into the city wall. It is also worth noting that the mausoleum may have had a "Grants Tomb" type of query to go with it, as in whose ashes are at Hadrian’s mausoleum? For not only were the emperor’s ashes there, but also his wife’s, his adopted son’s and even succeeding emperors for the next 50 some years. It was highly decorated and was in the design of classical Roman structures, but on a massive scale.

The tomb was converted into a fortress by Emperor Flavius Augustus Honorius, and heavily damaged during the Visigoth sacking of Rome in 410 CE. Later much of the decorative features and marble façade were used to build the Christian churches throughout the city. For many centuries it was left as little more than a ruin, until it was supposedly visited by the Archangel Michael who appeared over the structure and thus gave it its current name. Later a statue of the Archangel was added to the top of the rebuilt structure.

As Rome went through a rebirth, there was still fears of possible raids and attacks, and the area was converted into a castle in the 14th century, with the fortified corridor – the Passetto di Borgo – being soon added. This turned out to be a well-thought out idea, as Pope Clement VII used this route to reach the Castel Sant’Angelo during the 1527 sack of Rome by Charles V. Outer walls were added in the 17th century to provide better protection against siege, but it was also used to keep people in as well as out. Over the years, the Castel also served as a prison and it was finally decommissioned as a castle in 1901.

Today it is the Museo Nazionale de Castel Sant’Angelo, where it affords excellent views of the city. Within the walls are housed a small but excellent museum on 19th century Italian military history, and the galleries contain many firearms and uniforms from this period. Unfortunately, some of the collections have been removed by recent popes – and until the late 1970s the museum had featured a display of weapons used through the ages by the Vatican’s Swiss Guards. Today, many weapons remain in a pitiful type of temporary storage within the tall tower walls, while Medieval a ballista slowly weathers away in one of the courtyards.

Monumento Nazionale a Vittorio Emanuele II
One sight that is hard to miss in Rome’s historic district is the massive memorial to King Victor Emmanuel II. Often called over the years, "the typewriter" or "the wedding cake," it is a structure that isn’t exactly beloved by Romans today. Much of the reason is that its construction, which began in 1911 and was completed in 1935, resulted in the destruction of a large area of Capitonline Hill and moreover that its size detracted from the ruins in the nearby Roman Forum. However, it is also the home for the Italian Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with an eternal flame, which was built following the First World War.

Closed for many years, but now reopened, is the Museum to Italian Reunification, which is housed in the base of the structure. This museum features many excellent objects from the wars, including uniforms from Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi. Additionally, visitors can venture to the top of the monument to get another bird’s eye view of the city and take in that it is truly eternal.

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