In the heart of the Vatican is a seemingly inconsequential wall that actually holds a secret passageway that used to serve as an important escape route for the pope and other Vatican officials.

The Passetto di Borgo, or the Passetto, is a raised passageway approximately half a mile long linking Vatican City with the Castel Sant’Angelo, a present-day museum and castle that has at times served as a fortress to protect endangered popes.

The Passetto leading to St. Peter’s Basilica, as seen from Castel Sant’Angelo. By Chris 73 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6308664

Two Popes in particular are known to have used this passage in times of peril.

Pope Alexander VI fled the Vatican via the Passetto in 1494, seeking security in Castel Sant’Angelo when Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in the Italian War of 1494.

And again in 1527, Pope Clement VII was able to escape the Sack of Rome via the Passetto when Holy Roman Emperor Charles V invaded Rome with his army, killing all but 42 of the 189 Swiss Guards on duty.

The Passetto as seen from the street.

While several protective walls and passageways were built to protect St. Peter’s starting in the 6th century, none of them stood the test of time and war until around 850, when Pope Leo IV ordered the building of a protective wall that includes the present-day Passetto after Rome was besieged by pirates in the early 800s.

In an interview with Rome Reports, Edith Gabrielli, director of Lazio’s Museums, said that there is a ‘Secret Castle’ tour currently available in English and Italian that includes the Passetto as well as other secret and hidden parts of Castel Sant’Angelo, such as the room in which Clement VII hid.