A Narrow Escape

by Danilo Brunetti

Among the astounding wonders dotted around the Eternal City is a fragment of ancient history imbued with legend and mystery: the Passetto di Borgo, known in Roman dialect as Er Coridore due to its shape and original use. 

The Passetto is a raised, covered foot passage that connects the Vatican to Castel Sant’Angelo, and that for centuries has served as an escape route for the pope, should he ever find himself in danger. The narrow stone corridor snakes through the Borgo neighborhood, covering about 800 meters between the Courtyard of the Elm in the Vatican to the Bastion of San Marco at the nearby towering fortress. Although a similar passageway existed in some form as early as the 6th century, the present structure dates to 1277, when it was constructed atop a pre-existent defensive wall built by Pope Leo IV in 852.

It’s an architectural and strategic wonder that was later modified with internal as well as upper corridors, in case of unwelcome barbaric attacks. The most famous papal breakout by way of the Passetto occurred in 1527 when Pope Clement VII fled the atrocious Sack of Rome, a dramatic and adventurous, albeit tragicomic, escape. When the pontiff was hastily informed of the advance of Lansquenet soldiers, they were already alarmingly close to the city walls. By the time the pope dashed into the secret passage, a faction of invaders had been sighted in the vicinity. The roof which today protects the Passetto did not yet exist, and two soldiers armed with arquebuses (a type of medieval long gun) spotted the movements of the gaudy papal vestments and pointed their weapons in his direction. If not for a quick-witted cardinal who, sensing danger, threw himself on the pope and pulled him to the ground, it would surely have been curtains for hapless Clement VII. Some years later, that same cardinal became pope himself, taking the name Julius III.

The Passetto was witness to many other historic events, though none quite so dramatic. In the centuries following the Sack of Rome, the peace that descended upon the Papal City resulted in the neglect and abandonment of the route. Its splendid walls, Guelf merlons, towering arches, and papal coats of arms fell into decay. In 1936, a stone fell off the Passetto and struck a pedestrian below: this was a clear omen that the monument could no longer stand in such a state and risked imminent collapse. The same year, the Vatican State and the City of Rome each claimed the right of ownership of the historic monument, and debates continue to this day. The Italian State was eventually awarded the property, sparking new archeological interest in this unique fragment of history that has finally been restored to its ancient splendor and eternal fascination.