Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo throws open the dungeon doors

ItalyDescending into the bowels of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo, visitors are called upon to use their imagination.

It is here, in the dungeon beneath this ancient, circular papal fortress, that long-ago enemies of the pontiffs whiled away their time in dark, damp cells awaiting their fate.

The dungeon opened to the public this month for the first time in about a decade. Visitors can walk through the rough-hewn room that held Benvenuto Cellini of Florence, a Renaissance master sculptor and goldsmith imprisoned for slaying his brother’s killer in the early 1500s. Another vaulted room is lined with large clay urns that were used to store oil in wartime.

The tour can be strenuous. It requires climbing steep staircases and squatting to move through narrow passageways. Some cells have gaping holes in the uneven floors, where archaeologists for generations have sought to learn more about the construction of the buildings.

“There are a lot of things to discover about the structure,” said tour guide Dafne Iacopetti.

This fortress on the banks of the Tiber River, not far from the Vatican, was built in the 2nd century by Emperor Hadrian as his mausoleum. A few centuries later it became the most important defense for popes repelling invaders. Besieged pontiffs fled there through a secret tunnel from St. Peter’s Square.

The dungeon itself is somewhat underwhelming. Even a good imagination will have trouble conjuring the legendary intrigue of the place. Drawings purportedly left by prisoners are hard to discern.

But taken with the entire site, it’s worth the time and effort. The fortress is a fascinating place to wander, to mount Hadrian’s spiraling ramp and to ascend to upper terraces with their breathtaking views of Rome. And especially during the summer, Castel Sant’Angelo at night is a venue for musical performances and readings.

Dungeon tours are available through Aug. 26. A $14 ticket entitles the visitor to roam all of the castle and attend shows. An extra $3 is charged for the dungeon tour, which requires separate reservations. 011-39-06-32-86-91, (in Italian only).

-- Tracy Wilkinson

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IndonesiaSaudi Arabia was considering whether to follow the lead of the European Union and ban Indonesian airlines from its airspace because of safety concerns.

Earlier, a string of accidents prompted the U.S. government to advise Americans to avoid flying Indonesian airlines.

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-- Times Wires