Italy, Vatican to restore secret papal walkway

Passetto del Borgo ex-escape route to be 'virtually completed'

Italy, Vatican to restore secret papal walkway

Rome, February 14 - Italy and the Vatican on Thursday signed an agreement to complete the restoration of a secret walkway used down the years as an escape passage for popes and fictionally employed by the villains and heroes of Dan Brown's blockbuster Angels and Demons The deal was inked by Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, head of the Vatican City's 'governorate', and Italian Culture Minister Lorenzo Ornaghi. They said the Vatican Corridor, also known as the Passetto del Borgo, would be "virtually completely open to visitors" after the restoration. The corridor, famous as the avenue of escape for Pope Clement VIII during the 1527 Sack of Rome, has been partially reopened in two stages, first in 1999 and then in 2005. The last restoration made about two-thirds of it visitable. "We expect it to become an even bigger tourist draw when the restoration is over, while the passage will get much-needed structural bolstering," Bertello and Ornaghi said. Before its 1999 reopening, the Passetto had long been home to tramps and a pathway for burglars, while during the Second World War it was a hideout for anti-Fascist fugitives. For the last seven years, in small groups and strictly by reservation, tourists have had the thrill of following many, but not all, of the footsteps of historical and fictional figures, while also getting a rare peep onto one of the more atmospheric 'borghi', or medieval quarters, in Rome. The covered corridor runs for 700m from the Vatican palaces, through the heart of the medieval Borgo Pio nestling in the lee of St.Peter's, to the riverside stronghold of Castel Sant'Angelo, once the safest of papal fortresses. Today the castle, built on the tomb of Roman Emperor Hadrian, is one of Rome's prime tourist attractions. The corridor was built in 1277 by Pope Nicholas III, on top of walls originally put up by Pope Leo IV in 847-851 to protect the Vatican from Saracens who had sailed their warships as far as the mouth of the Tiber and swept in to sack the city. After Nicholas, other popes added towers and reinforcements, coating the outside of the corridor - or Passetto del Borgo, as it known locally - with their emblems. Until an expensive restoration that ended in 1999, the inside of the corridor had remained a secret, except for a select few with the right connections. During the repair work, restorers found writings on the walls left by anti-Fascists who fled into the Vatican during the Second World War. Later the Passetto became notorious as a home to tramps and a convenient pathway for burglars to break into the houses in Borgo Pio that are up against its walls. One of the highlights for the new batch of visitors will be to imagine that moment in 1527 when, after being persuaded to reluctantly leave his grip on the papal throne, Pope Clement came rushing down the corridor away from the fury of Emperor Charles V's German mercenaries. The Venetian ambassador of the time said he saw the Medici pope "flit off like a white ghost," candle in hand, as his Swiss guards held the foreign invaders at bay and died to the last man. But the pope got the last laugh, holding off the invaders from Castel Sant' Angelo. During the siege, the famous Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini used his trusty cross-bow to kill a French notable. But that was not the first time the Passetto was used, nor was it the last. The first pope to flee along the walkway was Alexander VI, the Borgia pope, in 1494, when Rome was invaded by an earlier emperor. Then, in 1870, after the fall of Rome signalled the loss of the Vatican's last Italian possessions, Pius XI stamped down it in disgust, refusing to have anything to do with the newborn Italian state.

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