~ Roman Monographs ~

Obelisks

introduction

Rome is the city in the world that boasts the greatest number of ancient obelisks: there are thirteen of them, scattered throughout the historical districts, and all of them are over 1500 years old. But there are also some less old and even modern works, whose shape was inspired by the aforesaid classical monuments.
Nevertheless, art historians and obelisk lovers are rather strict in ruling out such modern works from the list of genuine obelisks, as their features do not comply with the rather peculiar ones of the typical Egyptian monument (described further in the page).
Therefore, for the sake of a complete description, this monograph includes also such would-be obelisks, yet keeping them distinctly separated from the original ones.

About half of the ancient spires found in the Eternal City come from Egypt, as the result of a real plundering of the local monuments during the Roman rule of the country, from the late 1st century BC to the 4th century AD.
In those days, the obelisks in Rome were undoubtly more than the ones found today, but their precise number is unknown (in the past, some scholars maintained that there may have been up to forty-eight of them!).

16th century rendering of the Tiber Island's ancient arrangement
Some of them have surely gone lost, such as the obelisk that stood in the centre of the Tiber Island (left), which fell in the 14th century and whose only remains are three fragments, held by museums in Naples and Munich, or like others, still as a whole, that are now located in different cities (as will be said in the following pages).

the Flaminian obelisk

In their original land, these monuments appeared for the first time around the 24th century BC, but a full development in terms of size and decoration, was not reached until the 15th century BC. They were carved for religious, celebrative and decorative purposes. They were more often carved in couples, i.e. as twin monuments, to stand on both sides before a temple, but some of them were single.
Obelisks were part of the cult of god Ra (the sun), and their shape, tall and slender, points towards the heavens, probably as an attempt of establishing a connection between earth and the divinity. All four sides of the shaft are usually incribed with hieroglyphs that celebrate kings (pharaohs), often the late fathers of the rulers during whose reign the monuments were made.
Names can be easily told from other words because they are wrapped in an oval frame (cartouche). The obelisks in Rome very often mention Ramses II (king of the 19th dynasty, 1304-1237 BC). Egyptian names may sometimes be confusing, as they were carved using different hieroglyphs; for instance, no less than 29 spelling variants are known for the aforesaid Ramses, two of which are found on the spires taken to Rome (left).
Not all Egyptian obelisks bear inscriptions, though, as a number of them has a plain shaft (so-called anepigraphic obelisks). This can be explained in several ways. Some of them may have been used merely as decorative monuments, with no special dedication. Others may have been left unfinished, due to the untimely death of the pharaoh who had commissioned them.

cartouche with the name of Ramses II

← cartouches featuring two different spellings of the name of Ramses II

Finally, some obelisks were carved in Egyptian quarries after Rome's conquest of the country, in which case they may have been left plain to be given a decoration once in Rome.


Egypt fell to Rome in 31 BC, thus becoming a province of the Roman Empire; different features of the Egyptian world were then disclosed to the Romans, who adopted some of them, such as the cult of gods Isis and Serapis, or the whim by rich personalities to have a tomb built in the shape of a pyramid (right).

the pyramid of Gaius Cestius (late 1st century BC)

Several obelisks of different sizes were taken to Rome during the imperial age, from the 1st century BC to the 4th century AD. The large ones came from Heliopolis and Thebes (see map of ancient Egypt on the right); two of them had already been moved to Alexandria, before being taken to the capital of the empire.
The inscriptions that they bore were obscure to the Roman people, who looked at them mainly as an 'exotic decoration'. However, two obelisks commissioned by emperors Domitian and Hadrian, were taken to Rome with a blank shaft and inscribed locally with a dedication in hieroglyphic script.
the extension of the Roman Empire (↑ red) in AD 1 included Egypt (detail →), where eight of the obelisks come from

Their full meaning was only disclosed to the Western world in the early 1800s, when the French scholar Champollion found the key for interpreting the hundreds of small stylized figurines.


a typical circus in ancient Rome (17th century etching)
Roman emperors found obelisks particularly fit for decorating circuses (i.e. stadiums), where they were usually stood in the middle of the central platform (spina) that marked the inner boundary of the ring-shaped racing track. Obelisks were also used for furnishing temples sacred to Egyptian divinities (particularly short ones), or to make mausoleums (i.e. monumental tombs) look more grand: the one where the ashes of emperor Octavian Augustus and his family were kept had two of them flanking the entrance.

Some obelisks were also made in Rome: they were carried here as partly unfinished monolyths, to be carved with hieroglyphs by a local stone-mason, according to the classic Egyptian model; the quality of such carvings, though, was not as good as the original Egyptian ones. These spires are dealt with more in detail in part III.

From the beginning of the Middle Ages up to the late Renaissance, the obelisks fell into oblivion: all of them but one collapsed, breaking into fragments that lay abandoned in total carelessness, or even sunken in huge pools of mud (as the Flaminian obelisk). For most of them, the cause of such fate is said to be related with Rome's capture by the Ostrogoths, in 537: the towering symbols of the obsolete Roman Empire may have been intentionally damaged by king Totila's men during the raid that followed the siege.

an obelisk (blue arrow) lies broken into pieces by the church of St.Rocco, →
near the large round tomb of emperor Octavian Augustus (map dated 1551)
Furthermore, during the MIddle Ages Rome was stricken by strong earthquakes, which damaged several monuments, among which the obelisks may have been more vulnerable than others.
However, by the late 1800s the famous archaeologist Rofolfo Lanciani developed an uneasy yet likely hypothesis; after the ban over Christianity fell under emperor Constantine I (Edict of Milan, AD 313), and Theodosius I proclaimed it state religion of the Western Roman Empire (395), banning in turn any other cult, the early popes might have ordered the deliberate destruction of the city obelisks, which were looked at as bulky pagan relics; it is known that for the same reason the old temples and statues of emperors were destroyes, a religious zeal that today would be indeed considered fanatical.

Domenico Fontana
And by a curious twist of fate, it was a late Renaissance pope, Sixtus V (1585-90), who became the earliest and major sponsor of a renewed interest for the ancient obelisks, by having them restored and then moved to their present sites. Who took charge of the works was the pope's chief architect, Domenico Fontana, from Canton Ticino (now Switzerland); an inscription remembers his name by the base of the four spires he set into place: namely, the Lateran obelisk, the Flaminian obelisk, the Vatican obelisk and the Liberian obelisk (which appears still broken in the previous image).


inscription by the base
of the Vatican obelisk:
Domenico Fontana, from
the city of Melide, in a new
district by Como, moved
and erected
[this obelisk]

Sixtus V was particularly obsessed by the fact that these imposing monuments had been originally dedicated to non-Christian divinities; for this reason, he began the custom of fitting a cross on top of the obelisks whose restoration had been sponsored, also encasing in it fragments of Christian relics, having the base carved with inscriptions that dedicated the monument to the Holy Cross, and in some cases even performing by the spire exorcism rituals, so to drive away from it any residual pagan influence!


Obelisks are monuments whose features are rather peculiar: they are carved from a single block of stone (i.e. they are monolyths), more often of red granite. The shaft is a regular prysm with a square section, slightly tapered towards the upper end, where a short pyramidal element called the pyramidion is traditionally found.

(from the left) etching by Giuseppe Vasi that features an attempt to unearth the fragments of the Solar obelisk; detail of the pyramidion of the Flaminian obelisk

In Egypt, no special structure was added on top of the pyramidion, which was instead lined with a leaf of electrum, an alloy of silver and gold, so that it would reflect the sunlight all around the monument within a certain distance. However, if the obelisk's shaft was carved with hieroglyphs, also the pyramidion would have some, often featuring small cartouches with pharaoh names and images of gods (picture above left), almost as if the rays of light reflected by the coated surface could convey such names or personages.

Above the obelisks taken to Rome, instead, bronze spheres with a pinnacle were routinely mounted as finials (below right).

the finial of the Vatican obelisk
with the device of pope Sixtus V
The custom of placing an additional element above the spires was maintained during the Renaissance and the following ages; as the surviving obelisks were unearthed, restored and moved to other locations, the popes who ordered these works had the Christian cross and the heraldic device of their own family fitted above the pyramidion (left), removing the ancient sphere, if still in place. Only one of them, namely the Mattei obelisk, still bears a Roman sphere.
The most common devices found on obelisks in Rome are those of pope Sixtus V, who had four main spires moved to their present location (see the pictures below).
the only sphere still in place (left) and one that was removed,
now kept on display in the Capitoline Museums

Although the top elements of most obelisks may look almost identical, their shape is actually different (with only one exception), as the close-up details shown in the following pages reveal. Among the less common shapes are the one featuring a fleur-de-lys, representing the French royal family, on the obelisk standing by Trinità dei Monti (one of Rome's French churches), and one with a five-pointed star, above the small spire off Termini railway station.

two famous etchings that feature the location in Rome of the seven main churches traditionally visited by pilgrims; the one on the left was made for the
Jubilee Year of 1575; the one on the right, dated 1589, is almost identical, except for the presence of the four tall obelisks that Sixtus V had meanwhile set into place


But the most important features in which the obelisks differ are the age of the monument, its size (and weight), the presence or absence of hieroglyphs along the shaft and, most of all, the story behind them, sometimes partly mentioned by the inscriptions carved on the base on which they rest.

Before describing each obelisk and its story, a last curious etymological note is that the word obelisk comes from the Greek οβελος (obelos = "spit, skewer"), whose diminutive is οβελιςκος (obeliskos): to the first Westerners who saw them, among whom was historian Herodotus (5th century BC), these mighty monuments recalled the shape of a "small skewer"!