Constructed as far back as the Ancient Egyptians, secret rooms and passageways have been used for a number of exciting and interesting different reasons throughout history – for example to provide protection or to wangle ones way around a constricting status quo. Sometimes their role of concealing and hiding their holders in fact did the exact opposite, and they were built with the intention of actually drawing public attention. Whatever their purposes, the background and histories attached to many of these secret passageways and rooms are worth uncovering. Here are a few that have fascinated me:
1. Il Passetto di Borgo, Rome.
Il Passetto di Borgo is the raised passageway, atop the old Vatican wall, linking Saint Peter’s Church to the Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome. The Passetto (meaning ‘small passage’ in Italian) is an 800 metre corridor used exclusively by the papacy and was supposedly built in 1277 by Pope Nicholas III. It played an important role in the 1527 Sack of Rome, when the Passetto was used by Pope Clement VI to escape the Vatican, and take shelter in the fortified Castel Sant’Angelo.
Below is a bird’s eye view of the Passetto, shown as a red line running from Saint Peter’s (on the left) to Sant’Angelo (on the right).
2. The Vasari Corridor, Florence.
Now admittedly the Vasari Corridor is probably the most well-known of hidden passageways (and really it isn’t very hidden when you consider that it is in plain sight of anyone looking down the Arno river), but I’ve decided to include it here out of loyalty to this small Tuscan city. I lived in Florence briefly a couple of years ago and in that time I did manage to scrape in on a tour down the corridor – a really interesting experience that I highly recommend. The Vasari Corridor was built in 1564 for the Medici family, as a way of linking the Palazzo Vecchio and the Uffizi, which at the time was the site of the family’s offices, with the Palazzo Pitti, the Medici’s newly bought palace of residence. It is an enclosed passageway, running along the bank of the Arno, crossing the Ponte Vecchio, and then winding its way through the Oltrarno area, before finally reaching the Pitti. The corridor actually cuts through the Chiesa Santa Felicita, in the Oltrarno, and a balcony from the corridor that looks down onto the church congregation was created for the family. There the Medici could stand and follow the service taking place, without having to mix with the public inside the church. Below you can see the Ponte Vecchio with the corridor making up the top part.
3. Our Lord in the Attic (Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder), Amsterdam.
This is my favourite museum in Amsterdam. It is a 17th century residential canal house, originally owned by the merchant Jan Hartman. Hartman converted the top 3 floors of the bourgeois house into a secret Catholic church in 1663, a time when Catholicism was increasingly oppressed by Protestantism and the celebration of public mass and worship was forbidden. The lower floors of the house remained the living quarters of the Hartman family, and a stairway was built on the side of the house for the Catholics to climb when secretly congregating in the attic church for mass. The museum is well worth a visit not only for the secret church, but also for seeing what a middle class family home looked like during the ‘Dutch Golden Age’.
4. Priest Holes, UK.
Ploughing on with the Catholic theme – priest holes. These were secret hiding places built into many English Catholic houses in the mid-16th century, a period when Catholics were persecuted by English Elizabethan law. It was commonplace for old English castles and country houses to have some sort of secret room or means of escape in case of emergencies. However, these secret chambers grew in number within Catholic households during this time of persecution. They were typically used to conceal priests, who could quickly hide when in the middle of officiating secret masses (these were normally held in the attic or secluded parts of Catholic houses), but they also provided a place to put the sacred vessels and altar furniture needed for mass. These priest holes proved effective against ‘priest hunters’ (pursuivants) who could spend days searching and tearing through a house, but it wasn’t uncommon for the priest to die from lack of oxygen and/or starvation while confined to their uncomfortably small hiding place. During the Civil War, the priest hole in Moseley Old Hall, on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, became the hiding place for King Charles II, who was fleeing from Cromwell’s army in 1651. He was successfully concealed below a bedroom closet, in a tiny hole with no light, before the owner’s of the house helped the monarch escape to Europe.
5. Krifo Scholio, Greece.
Krifo Scholio, Greek for ‘secret schools’, were the supposed Greek clandestine schools that illegally taught the Christian doctrines and Greek language, subjects made illegal while the country was under Ottoman rule between the 15th and 19th centuries. Historians who believe these secret schools to be true suspect that they operated throughout Greece and were overseen by monks from the nearby monasteries. The most well known Krifo Scholio is thought to have been in the Peloponnese Monastery of Philosophos in the mountain village of Dimitsana. The monastery’s inaccessibility made it the perfect location for a secret school, as can be seen in the photo below.
This photo shows the entrance to the church, also the supposed site of the secret school: