~ Roman Monographs ~

Obelisks

part I


EGYPTIAN OBELISKS


1 · LATERAN OBELISK

alternative name: obelisk of Tuthmosis III


The most ancient among Rome's obelisks dates back to the 15th century BC. It stands in piazza San Giovanni in Laterano, in the open space between the transept of St.John in the Lateran's basilica and the Lateran Palace. It is made of red granite, and measures 32.18 metres (105.5 feet): it is therefore the tallest ancient obelisk in the world. Resting on its base, it reaches 45.70 metres (about 150 feet) in height. The weight of this giant is approximately 230 tons.
It originally stood in front of the Temple of Amon, in Thebes (or Karnak, in Egyptian), where the son of pharaoh Tuthmosis III had it carved in honour of his father.

the obelisk by St.John's basilica; the entrance to the
transept of the church is seen in the background
Over 1,700 years later, in the early 4th century AD, Constantine the Great had the monument moved to Alexandria, in the north of Egypt, which after the Roman conquest, had grown into the most important city of the country. The emperor had in mind to take the obelisk to Costantinople, the city that had been chosen as the new capital of the empire. But Constantine died before his project could be completed.
Only a few years later, in 357, emperor Constans I, who was Constantine's son and his successor, decided to change the monument's final destination and had it taken to Rome, as a decoration for the Circus Maximus, the largest chariot racing stadium of the city; he therefore had a special ship made in order to transport the spire.

two cartouches of Tuthmosis III
along the shaft (bottom and left)

Here the top of the monument was provided with the bronze globe, according to the ancient Roman custom. But some time later the sphere was stricken by lightning, and unlike any other obelisk in Rome, it was replaced with an element shaped as a flame, cast in polished bronze, as well, which looked as if it was burning when it reflected the sunlight. What happened to it is unclear; by the time of the first invasions by the Goths, when the obelisk was pulled down, it may have already been lost.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the monument lay broken in three large pieces in the large oval area, no longer used for races. As the sides of the Circus Maximus were sloping, the stream that ran underground caused the collection of an enormous amount of mud, which turned the area into a huge swampy field, partly cultivated, that covered also the ruins of the obelisk.
The Essay on Antiquities and on the Site of the City of Rome (Tractatus de rebus antiquis et situ urbis Romae), an anonymous work of the early 1400s, describing the obelisks says that "another one, the largest of them all, lies submerged in ruins in the aforementioned circus [the Circus Maximus], and the peasants often crash into it with their shovels".
The fragments were localized more precisely around the mid 1400s by architect Leon Battista Alberti, but at that time no effort was made to draw them out of the mud.

the heraldic devices of Sixtus V:
the star, the hills, the added lion
...and an extra seagull

This only took place in the late 1500s thanks to Michele Mercati, a botanist, a geologist and a physician who was also fond of archaeology; he convinced pope Sixtus V to sponsor the difficult search in the swampy field. Once the fragments were retrieved, and the obelisk restored, the latter was then moved to its present location, where it was stood in place of the famous bronze statue of Marcus Aurelius that was moved to Capitolium Square. The heraldic devices of the pope's family were then added to the top of the monument: an eight-pointed star and three hills; a further device, a lion with a raised paw, repeated on each corner, is a later addition (18th-19th centuries), whose purpose was likely to prop and support the original element.

"Costantine, winner thanks to the Cross,
baptized here by Saint Sylvester,
spread the glory of the Cross"

The inscriptions on the four sides of the base trace, in short, the history of the obelisk, mentioning the 'sacrilegous dedication' by the pharaoh to the god Sun, its removal to Alexandria by Constantine, and its transfer to Rome ('by means of a ship with three hundred rowers') by his son Constans.
The fourth side, in remembering that Costantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, was baptized in the Lateran by pope Sylvester I (314-335), mistakes the historical truth.
In fact, this belief sprang from several medieval legends about this emperor. As a matter of fact, Costantine remained a pagan for his entire life, yet showing himself lenient with the Christian religion, after his mother's conversion (St.Helen). He was baptized very late, in 367, just before his death.

Cavalier Domenico Fontana, architect, erected [this obelisk]
Sixtus V dedicated the obelisk to the most undefeated Cross, whose fragments had been brought to Rome from the Holy Land by Constantine's mother, and to which another ancient basilica, standing not far from the Lateran, is also dedicated.

On the eastern side of the base, a short and sober inscription remembers the architect who on August 9, 1588, performed the erection of this monument: Domenico Fontana.

this side of the base tells how the obelisk was
dragged in pieces from the Circus Maximus' mud,
moved here, accurately restored and dedicated
by Sixtus V to the most undefeated Cross



2 · FLAMINIAN OBELISK

alternative name: obelisk of Seti I

The spire in Piazza del Popolo, known as the Flaminian obelisk after the ancient Flaminian way (which starts from an adjacent square), is the second oldest in Rome. It is 24 metres (78.5 feet) tall, but with the base it reaches 34 metres (111 feet).
The monument dates back to the 13th century BC, and comes from Heliopolis. Its making was started under pharaoh Seti I, but it was finished during the reign of his son Ramses II, whose name appears on the shaft along with that of Merneptah (or Merenptah), the monarch's own son. It stood before the Temple of the Sun; god Ra, whom it was dedicated to, is featured at the bottom of the obelisk (in two different ways, on alternate sides), in the attitude of receiving an offering.


hypothetical reconstruction of the Circus Maximus

aerial view of the Flaminian obelisk

Also this spire was taken to Rome as a decorative element for the Circus Maximus, but at a much earlier time than the previous one, in AD 10, under Rome's first emperor, Octavian Augustus. So this was the first obelisk to reach the city.


an offering to god Ra
Its base is still the original ancient Roman one; a few missing parts were integrated during the late 1500s restoration. On two opposite sides, an inscription (now rather faint) remembers emperor Octavian Augustus, referred to as "the divine son of Caesar", who "...having turned Egypt under the possession of the Roman people, dedicated [the monument] to the Sun".
↑ the ancient Roman inscription on the base ↓
In time, the fragments of both obelisks were buried under several metres of mud, which developed during the Middle Ages, after the circus had fallen into a state of abandonment, due to a stream known as Acqua Mariana, or marrana: it originally ran underground, below the arena, and was turned into a small channel in 1122 by pope Calist II.
As the previous obelisk, also this one was retrieved by the time Sixtus V had the site of the Circus Maximus investigated. The fragments were then restored and assembled.
the top element (left) and the inscription on the base that mentions how pope Sixtus V
restored the obelisk, which had been dedicated to the Sun by Octavian Augustus
and lay in pieces in the Circus Maximus, and had it moved here in 1589

On the two blank sides of the base, commemorative inscriptions were added: one of them says that the pope "moved the obelisk from the Circus Maximus, where emperor Octavian Augustus had dedicated it to the Sun by impious ritual and where it lay as a miserable broken ruin, giving it back its original shape and dedicating it to the most invincible Cross". The inscription on the opposite side, facing the church of Santa Maria del Popolo, is almost a play on words on the original dedication of the monument, as it says "I rise more august and happy, in front of the holy temple of She out of whose maiden womb, during the reign of Augustus, the Sun of Justice was born" (Octavian Augustus was emperor by the time of Christ's birth).


On March 5 1589, the monument was raised in its present location, with great effort due to its considerable size. It stood side by side with an octagonal fountain that had already been set in the square in 1572.

Also the top element of this obelisk bears two out of three of the pope's heraldic devices, namely the star and the hills, but not the lion. However, when in 1823 architect Valadier refurbished the square, the old fountain was removed, as described more in detail in the Fountains monograph, and a large platform was added to the monument, with water-spouting Egyptian lions in its four corners, referring to the third device of Sixtus V and to the country where the obelisk came from.


the obelisk standing by the original fountain, in the second half of the 1600s →



3 · VATICAN OBELISK

Also in St.Peter Square stands an Egyptian spire, without hieroglyphs, which used to be Rome's most famous obelisk during the early centuries. It measures 25.5 metres (83 feet) , although the stand and the bronze element on the top add about 12 metres to its overall height, making it look much taller.
Originally, it stood in Heliopolis. In the 1st century, Augustus had it moved to Alexandria, dedicating it to the memory of Julius Caesar, his stepfather. In AD 37, emperor Caligula had it taken to Rome as a decoration for the stadium whose making was in progress by the Vatican Hill. This building became known as the Circus of Gaius (i.e. Caligula's actual name) and Nero, having been completed under the latter emperor.
Since no hieroglyphs are inscribed on its shaft, the dating of this obelisk is difficult.

the Vatican obelisk in its present location, standing on
a tall base, facing St.Peter's basilica...
In his Histories, Herodotus (5th century BC) tells that pharaoh Pheros erected an obelisk in Heliopolis as a token of gratitude for having recovered from blindness.
Unfortunately, the famous historian used to refer to pharaohs with Greek names, and despite he informs us that Pheros was the son of Sesostris (who might be Senusret III, 1878–1860 BC), Pheros has never been identified in the 'official' lists of Egyptian monarchs, also because very likely this name was only the Greek corruption of the generic term "pharaoh". Pliny instead wrote that this obelisk was taken to Rome by Caligula, and that it matched a similar one, which the same pharaoh was credited for, but which broke in the attempt of removing it.
...and in the late 1500s, on one side
of the early basilica, that was being rebuilt

In AD 319, emperor Constantine I founded the first St.Peter's basilica, building it on the very site where the apostle had been killed, next to the site of Nero's arena.
Within a few centuries, the stadium fell into abandonement and disappeared, but the obelisk kept standing on the left side of the basilica for a very long time, just before a round building known either as St.Andrew's Rotunda or St.Mary of Fever, a 3rd century AD structure that had been turned into a chapel and annexed to St.Peter's.
This was the only spire that was not taken down after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, probably because it stood so close to the apostle's shrine.



the early basilica of St.Peter's: the arrow
indicates the obelisk, in its original position



the floor plan of the buildings by which the Vatican obelisk stood:

the stadium of Gaius
 and Nero (1st century)
the early basilica
 (4th century)
the present basilica
 (16th-17th centuries)

Another reason may be because its base bears a dedication to the first two Roman emperors, which also mentions Julius Caesar, whose great fame had lingered among the common people, despite the contempt with whom the Christians looked at the ancient pagan rulers and their symbols.

the legendary globe,
now in the Capitoline Museums
Today this inscription is very faint; only in the hours before sunset, when the grazing light gives the letters more contrast, the dedication becomes readable (below).
Over the Middle Ages, the obelisk was known as the agulia (i.e. "spire"), and was even considered one of Rome's most famous landmarks because the people believed that the bronze globe at the top contained Caesar's ashes. In all editions of the 12th and 13th century guides for pilgrims that described the city's features (see also The Ancestors Of Rome's Dialect) it is listed among the noticeable monuments.

the barely readable inscription reads:
SACRED
TO THE DIVINE CAESAR AUGUSTUS, SON OF THE DIVINE JULIUS,
AND TO TIBERIUS CAESAR AUGUSTUS, SON OF THE DIVINE AUGUSTUS

Since the time of Nicholas V (1447-55), several popes before Sixtus V had thought of moving the obelisk from the basilica's side to the centre of the square in front of St.Peter's, but they had never found anybody able to tackle the very difficult task, which even famous architects such as Michelangelo and Antonio da Sangallo the Young had declined to attempt.
Only in 1586, during the works for the making of the second basilica of St.Peter, the chief architect of Sixtus V, Giovanni Fontana, accepted the challenge. In his huge workshop over 900 men were employed, who toiled on the project for almost six months. Finally, by using a gigantic wooden scaffold, ropes and pulleys, the obelisk was raised about 60 cm (2 ft) above the ground, just for the time needed to slide a huge platform underneath, on which the monument was then carefully tilted and laid, and then rolled to the new location, before the basilica (right).
fresco in the Vatican Library (Vatican Museums), that shows the obelisk being rolled to
its new location (right), as the works for the making of the new basilica are in progress (left)
Fontana's work is remembered by an inscription on the lower part of the base, on its northern side.

(↑ above, from the left) northern side of the base, claiming that Sixtus V purified the Vatican obelisk from impure
superstition by means of the invincible Cross
, and the bronze lions that support the obelisk with eagles added later;
(↓ below) eastern side of the base, with the words of the ancient ritual performed by the monument; the obelisk is
off-centered from the basilica's front (in the background), having the latter been completed after the spire was stood
Here the spire was stood again on a tall base, resting on four couples of bronze lions; in fact, this animal is one of the heraldic devices in the pope's coat of arms.
The pope, whose aversion for popular beliefs was famous (see Legendary Rome, page 7), decided to put an end to this "impure superstition", as a Latin inscription on the northern side of the tall base says, and for this reason had the globe removed.

It was examined by Fontana, who observed that it had been cast as a single piece, and was seamless; his conclusion was that nothing could have been placed inside. In this way the old legend was disproven.
The top of the spire was then fitted with a cross resting over a star and three hills, devices from the coat of arms of Sixtus V. A small fragment from the remains of the Holy Cross was enclosed in the bronze element, probably to 'counterbalance' the old belief about Caesar's ashes.

The standing of the monument was followed by a ceremony, during which the pope pronounced the words of an ancient exorcism ritual, whose purpose was to drive away any residual 'evil influence' caused to the obelisk by its pagan origin.
The words used for the ritual are carved on the eastern and western side of the monument's base, i.e. the ones that are seen approaching and leaving the basilica, respectively. They read:
BEHOLD THE CROSS OF THE LORD
FLEE
YE ADVERSARIES

THE LION
FROM THE TRIBE OF JUDAH WON
CHRIST WINS
CHRIST REIGNS
CHRIST RULES
MAY CHRIST DEFEND
HIS PEOPLE
AGAINST ANY EVIL

Many details about the techniques and the ceremony are known thanks to Della transportatione dell'obelisco vaticano, a book by the same architect Domenico Fontana, published in 1590, which provides an extensive account of the event.

models of several techniques for erecting obelisks (from Fontana's book) →
By the time the obelisk was erected, the large façade of the basilica had not been built yet: for this reason, the obelisk was positioned according to the central axis of the old façade. But when the new one was finished, the spire was found to mismatch its axis by about 4 metres (12 ft).
In 1713 pope Innocent XIII too had his own family device, a crowned eagle, added to the base of the monument.
In 1817 the obelisk was also turned into a sun-dial: the floor on the right (northern) side of the square was inlaid with a thin band made of granite, indicatings where the cross above the spire throws its shade at mid-day, all round the year; disks mark the spots reached on solstices and equinoxes, as seen in the picture on the right.

detail of the sun-dial of the obelisk in St.Peter's Square: →
at 11:59 am (standard time) the shadow thrown by the monument almost covers the line that marks
its progression at mid-day; the picture was taken just before the winter solstice (December 21 or 22),
when the shadow reaches its maximum length, i.e. the white marble disk located at the end of the line


bullets and bullet-holes in the old globe
The old bronze globe removed from the top of the obelisk was spared from destruction. Up to 1850 it decorated the baluster on Capitolium Hill; it was then taken to the nearby Capitoline Museums, where it is still on display. A curious detail is that its surface is speckled with bullets: they were shot by the Lanquenets, the mercenary soldiers of Charles V, who raided the city during the sack of Rome in 1527, and who likely used the globe, in those days still above the obelisk, as a fun target.

The obelisk is 25.46 m (83.5 ft) tall; including the base on which it rests, it reaches 40.23 m (132 ft).


4 · SOLAR OBELISK

alternative names: obelisk of Montecitorio, obelisk of Psamtik II

Another obelisk stands in piazza di Montecitorio, in front of the building that houses the Low Chamber of the Parliament (prior to 1870, it was used as a law court).

full view of the spire,
in front of the Parliament building
Its story mingles with that of another Roman monument, which unfortunately disappeared in the attempt of saving the former one.
Also this Egyptian spire comes from Heliopolis, and dates back to about year 600 BC; its hieroglyphs mention pharaoh Psamtik II, who had this monument made in honour of god Ra (i.e. the sun), whence the alternative name of the spire, also called 'solar obelisk'.
Emperor Octavian Augustus had it taken to Rome, where it stood in the northern part of the Campus Martius or Field of Mars, i.e. the plains next to the river Tiber, outside the city walls, originally used for military training and sports, but later on, during the imperial age, exploited for expanding the city. Over the 1st century AD several other public buildings and monuments were built in the Campus Martius (see also Rione IV).
Maybe to remark its original dedication to the sun, in Rome the spire was used as the pointer of a huge sundial, called Horologium (or Solarium) Augusti; for this reason it is commonly referred to as the solar obelisk.

the heavy integration with
parts of the Antonine column
Its shadow fell upon a vast platform made of travertine, acting as a dial, whose larger side was about 160 metres (175 yards) long; it was crossed by bronze lines and notches, which marked the days and the hours. The monument was located between the present piazza del Parlamento and piazza San Lorenzo in Lucina (see map, below right).
Beside the Horologium stood also the Ara Pacis (an altar dedicated to peace, built under the same Octavian Augustus), which the obelisk's shadow reached on the very day of the emperor's birthday, September 23rd.
The spire collapsed sometime around the 11th century, breaking into several fragments, that gradually ended up buried by rubble and debris.
In the late 1500s an excavation campaign began under pope Sixtus V; however, the obelisk was unearthed much later, by the end of the 18th century, and only five of its many parts were retrieved.
Meanwhile, about fifty years before the obelisk was excavated, another ancient relic had been found in piazza di Montecitorio: a tall plain column dedicated to emperor Antonine the Pious, with a beautifully carved base. But all architects who tried to unearth the column failed, at the point that the monument was left badly damaged by the attempts.
Once the column was finally extracted, a fire caused further damage to the monument. So the column was sacrificed and cut into several parts, in order to integrate the many missing fragments of the Egyptian obelisk; the latter has, in fact, large patches without hieroglyphs, whose colour clearly differs from the parts that bear carvings. Only the base of the Antonine column was spared, and it is now held by the Vatican Museums. Instead, some parts of the travertine platform of the Horologium are still extant, in the basement of the buildings now standing along via di Campo Marzio.

original location of the Horologium Augusti and
the Ara Pacis compared to the present street plan;
the obelisk now stands in piazza di Montecitorio

Curiously, in one of the scenes carved on the base of the Antonine column (left), the solar obelisk is featured, held by a male reclining figure, which is an allegory of the Campus Martis, the area where both monuments once stood.


← the base of the Antonine column: the
solar obelisk is embraced by a male figure,
an allegorical depiction of the Campus Martis

(picture taken from Wikipedia Commons)

the cartouche of Psamtik II

The base on which the solar obelisk stood went almost completely lost; by the time the monument was retrieved and restored, the scanty original fragments were included in the new base, largely consisting of the remains of the Antonine column, as well. Two opposite sides were carved with the same ancient inscription found on the base of the Flaminian obelisk, i.e. the one that mentions the dedication of the obelisk to the Sun by Octavian Augustus: the few words that can be read on the original surviving fragments are consistent with those of the other monument's text.

the integrated base of the solar obelisk: note →
how the upper part (original) differs in colour from
the lower part, carved out of the antonine column

the bronze globe
with a double hole
When in 1792 the obelisk was erected in front of the law court, a bronze globe with a double hole was placed on its top, to recall the original purpose of the monument: at mid-day, a ray of light was supposed to cross the sphere, marking the date on the square's pavement. The new device, though, proved inaccurate and very soon became useless; actually, this had happened also with the Horologium, about which Pliny the Elder around AD 79 wrote: « This observation [of the obelisk's shade] has not been consistent for the past 30 years already...» (Historia Naturalis, XXXVI, 73).
A new line with bronze notches, with a merely decorative purpose, was set in the square in 1998.

the new notches (1998)

The spire measures 21.80 metres (71.5 feet) in height, 33.27 m (109 ft) including the base and the globe.



5 - 6 · LIBERIAN AND QUIRINAL OBELISKS

Two obelisks with no hieroglyphs, almost identical in shape, stand on the top of two different hills, the Esquiline and the Quirinal: they are the couple of twin spires that once flanked the entrance of the monumental tomb of emperor Octavian Augustus (who died in AD 14) and his family, in the Campus Martius plains (see Campo Marzio, in The Rioni section).
← the Tomb of Augustus,
in an old reconstruction


one of the obelisks (blue arrow) →
still lies broken along the street
near the large round tomb (1577)

Little is known about their origin. Apparently, they did not originally belong to the tomb, as they are never mentioned in literature before the second half of the 1st century, therefore they may have been added to the complex some fifty years after its making, or even later. It is likely that they were taken to Rome shortly earlier in time.
During the Middle Ages they lay there, partly buried and broken into fragments. Pope Leo X (1513-21) had one of them unearthed and dragged to the nearby street that runs parallel to the river (above left), where it is featured in some Renaissance maps, still in pieces.


(↑ above) the obelisk at the back of St. Mary the Major
and its almost twin by Quirinal Palace (right →)

Sixtus V used this obelisk for decorating the square at the back of the basilica of St.Mary the Major (above left). The erection took place on July 28, 1587. Why he decided to privilege the rear of the church rather than the front may depend on the fact that this square marked the end of the long and straight via Felice, opened by the pope to connect the Pincian Hill and the Esquiline Hill, and named after his first name. Another likely reason is that on this same spot was the main entrance of Villa Montalto, a vast estate belonging to Sixtus V himself.
About two hundred years later, in 1786, pope Pius VI moved the second obelisk to the square in front of Quirinal Palace, the summer residence of the popes.
Here the spire, resting on a tall travertine base, stands behind a large round basin of roman age used as a fountain, and is flanked by two huge statues of Castor and Pollux (the Dioscuri, twin sons of Jupiter) with their horses, Roman as well, that once belonged to the nearby Baths of Constantine (early 4th century). During the Middle Ages, these two figures represented one of Rome's main landmarks; in fact, the site was traditionally referred to as Montecavallo (horse-hill) after them.

None of the two obelisks bears incriptions, and at fist sight they look perfectly similar; but when it comes to measures, the one on Esquiline Hill marks 14.75 metres in height (48.5 feet), while the one on Quirinal Hill is slightly shorter by 11 cm (4 inches). Including their bases, the height of the two monuments is 25.53 m (84.5 ft) and 28.94 m (95 ft), respectively.

Another interesting feature is that these two spires do not end with a pyramidion at the top, like all other obelisks, but their shaft is flat at both ends: they were either carved with this shape, or the small pyramidal end may have been cut off before standing them. Therefore, the two bronze elements that they carry at the top are not fitted over the pyramidion, but rested directly on the shaft's top. Both of them feature a cross and an eight-pointed star, a device shared by the coat of arms of Sixtus V and that of Pius VI, but only the obelisk on Esquiline Hill also has the small hills device (above left).