By Jane Fitzpatrick
Appreciate Opera Contributing Columnist
If you have ever seen Giacomo Puccini’s Tosca, you may recall that the titular diva plunges to her tragic yet exceedingly romantic death after several hours of love and betrayal. As the audience loses sight of her descending form at the top of an eerie castle, a prominent, larger-than-life figure looms over the scene: a statue of Saint Michael, the armed archangel who crowns the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome, Italy.
International productions of Puccini’s Tosca have incorporated actual Italian environments and architectural structures throughout the centuries — from the Sant’Andrea della Valle, where art, protection, romantic drama, and divine inspiration are sought by the cast of characters; to the Palazzo Farnese, a place of political dominance as well as sinful lust and murder by Tosca’s loyal hands — but the Castel Sant’Angelo is particularly memorable as the dramatic backdrop for the final scene.
The Castel Sant’Angelo and its crowning angelic statue hold a unique story that represents the history of Rome and of Christianity as its historical religious and political powerhouse. Rooted in Roman culture, enforced by years of dedicated infrastructure projects, and believed to be blessed by divine forces, the fortress once known as the Roman Emperor Hadrian’s mausoleum houses the spirit and ambition of Christianity in Italy. Hadrian believed in a pantheon of gods during his reign, but his mausoleum later became an icon of Catholicism. In light of the Roman Emperor’s original designs, Puccini’s Tosca does acknowledge the site as a place of mourning and death with its final scene towering directly above Hadrian’s own grave; thus, the castle’s history comes to a surprisingly complete circle.
Saint Michael’s history with Rome indicates the significance of the relationship between church and state that has characterized Italy’s distinct narrative for centuries. The angel embodies religious as well as political strength, due to his personification as a warrior and holy protector. Throughout its reign as the crowning jewel of the Castel Sant’Angelo, the grand statue has featured broad wings and the element of a sword (some renditions have sheathed the sword, others have displayed it openly). Both the castle and its patron saint have distinctly influenced and impacted prominent Italian figures throughout history, particularly during its Renaissance period.
Pope Saint Gregory the Great is believed to have seen a vision of the Archangel Saint Michael standing atop what was yet still known as Hadrian’s tomb while he prayed for salvation from the plague in 590 AD. Many years later, the statue was constructed in commemoration of the event, destroyed during an uprising, then struck by lightning and destroyed once more.
Saint Michael is known in Christian tradition as a divine protector and liberator, as depicted in the Book of Revelation as well as the Acts of the Apostles. Religious leaders of Italy’s Renaissance period even used the Castel Sant’Angelo as a military stronghold. Pope Clement VII hid in the Castel Sant’Angelo when Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire sought to take control of the pope’s influence in 1527. This military engagement famously became known as the Sack of Rome. Clement regarded his liberation from the turmoil as a sacred intervention from the archangel, and he planned to erect his own statue of Saint Michael as a form of gratitude. Despite his grand plans for everlasting and monumental artistry, the statue that Puccini’s characters would have witnessed in 1800 was constructed much later by the Flemish sculptor Peter Anton von Verschaffelt, who lived from 1710 to 1793. It remains the very same statue that one can visit in Rome today.
In addition to the architectural recreations, the opera thematically incorporates the history of Italy alongside its deadly love triangle. Puccini’s cast of Italian artists and officials alike struggle through political, religious, and romantic challenges that reflect the actual history of the nation: the year 1800 did in fact bring defeat under Napoleon as well as the growth of non-Roman Catholic Christian populations in Italy, and though ‘tis not “fair Verona,” romance is no stranger to Rome.
Catholic beliefs play a significant role in Tosca’s tragedy. Tosca herself presents devout conviction in her faith through her expressions as well as the commonly utilized costume choice of a large cross. Before falling from the Castel Sant’Angelo, Tosca boldly assures all that she will meet her rival, Scarpia, for justice before God. As a parallel to Scarpia’s failure in faith, war, and love, Saint Michael the Archangel’s statue stands tall in the final scene, just as it has throughout the centuries in Roman history.
Through battles for state and battles for faith, Saint Michael has risen from the ashes again and again, and he remains forever memorialized through Puccini’s tragic Italian love story.
Jane Fitzpatrick is an avid researcher of the intersections between religious traditions and international affairs with a passion for opera and art. She earned her master's degree in International Affairs from Penn State University and has a Bachelor's degree in Religious Studies from Gettysburg College. Jane has previously provided research assistance for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Strategic Religious Engagement Unit of the U.S. Department of State, and the U.S. Army War College. In 2023, she became an AppreciateOpera.org contributing columnist.