~ Roman Monographs ~

Obelisks

part II


EGYPTIAN OBELISKS FROM THE ISEUM SERAPEUM

Among Rome's obelisks are also a number of Egyptian ones, rather small in size, that come from an Iseum-Serapeum, i.e. a temple of Isis and Serapis (i.e. the Roman transposition of Osiris), whose priests, the so-called pastophori, wore shaven heads.
The temple stood in the Campus Martius, not far from the Pantheon, and was called Iseum Campense. Several others were to be found in the other urban districts, but four out of five surviving obelisks seem to come from the aforesaid temple.

Evidence to the cult of the two Egyptian gods in Rome, often combined, being Isis the bride of Serapis, can be found already since the early 1st century BC. During the second half of the century, though, probably because the worshippers became involved in the struggle for power, the Senate ordered the destruction of the temples and the statues of these divinities. Also after the conquest of Egypt (31 BC), Octavian Augustus opposed their cult, forbidding it within the boundary of the Pomerium.

← head of a pastophorus (National Roman Museum, Palazzo Altemps)

Under Tiberius the persecution became more harsh. This seems to be connected to a fact told by the Jewish-Roman historian Titus Flavius Iosephus, according to which a knight, whose name was Decius Mondus, had taken a fancy of a lady named Paulina, the wife of Saturninus; with the help of a libertus (freed slave) and some priests of the of the Iseum Campense, he had made the lady believe that god Anubis had fallen in love with her and wished to meet her in the temple, where obviously Decius Mondus, disguised as the god himself, took advantage of her. Once the trick was discovered, the fact was brought to the attention of Tiberius, who had the Iseum razed to the ground, the priests executed, as well as the libertus, and Decius Mondus sent in exile.
The following emperor, Gaius, better known as Caligula (37-41), who was a great-grandson of Mark Anthony, had the Iseum Campense rebuilt, even larger than before. It is from this temple that all the obelisks described in the page come from.

The cult grew popular, until the end of the 4th century, when Theodosius and Honorius imposed the Christian religion throughout the empire.

Isis holding a sistrum, a rattle-like
instrument (Capitoline Museums)

Besides the many Egyptian immigrants, among whom were slaves, workmen and stone-masons, particularly women belonging to the high class were fascinated by the new religion, almost as a trendy fashion. But also most important emperors sought for the favour of the Egyptian gods by giving contribution to their cult in different ways, or restoring the large Iseum Campense, as Domitian did after the great fire of AD 80 and, after him, Alexander Severus around 230. The former of the two even had statues of himself carved as a pharaoh, referred to himself as dominus et deus ("lord and god", whereas accordind to the Roman custom,emperors were worshipped as gods only after their death), and had an obelisk raised in Rome dedicated to himself (see page 3); two more obelisks in his honour were set in Benevento (southern Italy). Around AD 200 Caracalla allowed once again the cult of Isis within the Pomerium.

← Serapis, according to the Greek and Roman iconography (National Roman Museum, Palazzo Altemps)

Besides the cult of Isis and Serapis, also other minor religions coexisted legally together with the official one; some of them were of local origin (Bacchus, Diana, Mars, etc.), while others had come from the Middle East, such as the cult of Mithra.

The Iseum Campense was richly furnished with columns and statues of sphynxes, crocodiles, cats and other typical subjects, among which small obelisks, partly coming from Egypt, and partly carved in Rome. An actual Egyptian district developed around the temple, where the priests lived, but also where craftsmen and sellers of goods related to the cult had their workshops, forming a real linked industry.
Another Iseum-Serapeum stood on the Capitolium Hill (in Campitelli district), on the peak known as Arx, which today corresponds to the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

1. Iseum Campense; 2. Saepta Iulia; 3. Pantheon; 4. Temple of Matidia;
5. Temple of Hadrian (replica in the Museum of Roman Civilization)


remains of the Temple of Isis and Serapis by the Esquiline Hill
Since the 1st century BC, another large Iseum - Serapeum, stood at the base of the Oppium Hill (Monti), just off the Colosseum. It had been originally entitled to Isis alone, but then the dedication to Serapis was added during the imperial age. The third regio (district of the ancient city) was named after it Isis et Serapis. A further Iseum was to be found in the Vatican area.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, when all such places of worship collapsed and disappeared, already during the early Middle Ages, the few surviving parts that were not recycled as building material ended up buried under rubble and debris.

Many centuries later, four small obelisks that once belonged to the Iseum Campense were unearthed and relocated on different spots, where they can be seen today (except one of them, that was later on moved to Florence). A fifth one likely comes from the temple on the Capitolium Hill.

Among other findings from the same temple are the bust popularly known as Madama Lucrezia (see Rome's Talking Statues), a large marble foot and a small figure of a cat, all located in Pigna district, plus other remains held by the Egyptian section of the Vatican Museums, that of the Capitoline Museums and the Roman National Museum.


↑ crocodile in Aswan pink granite (Capitoline Museums)

column with a procession of pastophori (Capitoline Museums) →


7  THE MATTEI OBELISK

alternative name: Villa Celimontana obelisk

On one side of the Coelian, one of the legendary seven hills over which Rome was founded, spreads Villa Celimontana, once part of a villa belonging to the rich Mattei family. Its small mansion is now the see of the Italian Geographic Society, while the gardens have been turned into a public park, where a small number of roman remains, such as fragments of capitels, altars, statues, sarcophagi, lay scattered.

the Mattei obelisk, the only one with a bronze sphere
Here, in the middle of a small round area, stands an Egyptian obelisk that at a first glance may appear much taller than its true height. The 'real' obelisk is only the top part of the monument, incribed with hieroglyphs, among which is the cartouche of king Ramses II. Measuring only 2.70 m (or 9 ft), this is actually the shortest among Rome's spires. It is mounted on a plain extension, of a lighter colour, with no decorations. Including also the base, the monument reaches the overall height of 12.24 metres (40 feet).


The first known location of this obelisk was the Capitolium Hill, by the convent adjoining the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli, where it may have been stood in the 1400s. It is the only obelisk that likely comes from the temple of Isis on the Capitolium Hill rather than the one in the Campus Martius, but this is impossible to ascertain.

the real obelisk is very short

In 1535 the convent's porch was refurbished, and on this occasion the spire was taken down and laid on the ground. Half a century later, in 1582, Rome's Senators (i.e. the city administrators) gave the monument to Ciriaco Mattei, a nobleman and an art collector, who had it moved to his villa on the Coelian Hill, and stood it in a garden in front of the mansion. Actually, this obelisk is the only one in Rome that still bears above its pyramidion the original bronze globe, instead of a cross or papal insignia.

the former Villa Mattei, now Villa Celimontana, →
in an etching by Giuseppe Vasi (mid 18th century)

This monument is also remembered for a rather odd and gruesome accident, occurred in 1820. In that year, the villa was purchased by prince Emanuele Godoi. The obelisk had become unsteady, and the new owner decided to move it to a different spot of his estate, where it stands now, providing it with a new base, whose inscription celebrates the refurbishment.

The operation took place with great pomp, and a public ceremony was held on this occasion. While the latter was in progress, and the obelisk had already been suspended above its base, ready to be lowered into place, one of the workers in charge was probably removing some gravel from the stand, when the ropes that held the heavy monument suddenly snapped. The enormous mass came down, amputating the poor man's hands ...which should still be there, crushed under the obelisk!



mind your hands... too late!


8  THE MINERVA OBELISK

A small obelisk about 5.47 metres in size (18 feet) stands in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva's church, behind the Pantheon, resting over the elephant statue drawn by Bernini, popularly known as 'Minerva's chick' (see the Curious and Unusual section). Including the base, the overall size of the monument is more than doubled, measuring 12.69 m (41.5 ft).


the obelisk over the elephant drawn by Bernini
The spire dates back to the 6th century BC. It was taken to Rome from from Sais (northern Egypt) where it had been stood by pharaoh Apries or Hophra, the son of Psamtik II, and it was dedicated to the gods Neith and Atum.

It was found in 1665, buried in a garden belonging to the Dominican convent by the church, very close to the site where the Temple of Isis and Serapis once stood. The ruling pope in those days, Alexander VII, had it raised in this square, in 1667.

coat of arms
of Alexander VII
On that occasion, the eight-pointed star from the coat of arms of the pope's family (Chigi) was placed at the top.

the bronze finial
with the Chigi device



9  THE MACUTEO OBELISK

alternative name: piazza della Rotonda obelisk


the obelisk that stands in front of the Pantheon
Almost adjoining the previous obelisk stands a slightly taller one, 6.34 m or 21 ft in height, located on the opposite side of the Pantheon, i.e. before the Roman building's front, resting above a late Renaissance fountain (overall height of the monument: 14.53 m or 47.5 ft). The spire is much older than the fountain that supports it, than the Pantheon and than the previous obelisk, as well: its hieroglyphs mention pharaoh Ramses II, which makes its dating set back to the 13th century BC.
the obelisk by San Macuto's church (mid 1500s)

It was found in 1374 by the church of San Macuto, not far from the Pantheon, on the same site where the Temple of Isis and Serapis stood; it was unearthed and raised by the same church, where it stood up to 1711.

two different cartouches bearing
the name of Ramses II

Once the people used to call it 'the spire of mammautte', after a corruption of the church's name. Still today it is referred to as the Macuteo, a name that maintains a reference to its original location.
When it was moved to its present location, a special base decorated with a group of rocks was also added to the fountain; this composition was very likely inspired by Bernini's Fountain of the Rivers (see next paragraph), finished about half a century earlier, whose innovative design had been very successful among the people. Alexander VII added his coat of arms to the base; one of his devices, a star, is also featured by obelisk's top element, identical to that of the previous obelisk.

the finial with the
device of pope Clement XI

10  THE DOGALI OBELISK

A fourth spire, curiously topped by a star, can be seen on the former site of the Baths of Diocletian, in front of the Roman National Museum. It was the last obelisk to be found in Rome, unearthed by the famous archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani in 1883, by the old site of the Iseum Campense. By that time, the Papal State had already fallen: a star was chosen as a finial for the monument.

the obelisk by the Baths of Diocletian

The obelisk is 6.34 m (29 ft) tall. It features hieroglyphs that mention Ramses II along its shaft, and rests over a small monument in memory of the Italian soldiers who fell in the Battle of Dogali (Ethiopia, 1887), not long after the spire was found.
It was originally located in the large square in front of the central Termini train station, where it was set in the late 1800s.
In 1924, due to alterations, both the spire and the memorial were shifted some 200 metres (or yards) off the square, to the spot where they presently stand.

the cartouche of Ramses II can be seen on the shaft

In 1987, the Ethiopian president Mengistu commemorated the centenary of the historical event by having a monument built in Dogali, in the middle of the battlefield, very similar in shape and size to the one in Rome, with a column on top instead of an obelisk. Once his regime fell in 1991, the monument was removed.


the spire (far right) facing the
old Termini station in the early 1900s


11  THE VILLA MEDICI OBELISK

A twin of the previous obelisk was once kept in the garden of Villa Medici, the see of the French Academy in Rome, located on top of the Pincio Hill. The beautiful mansion was developed into its present shape by cardinal Ferdinando de' Medici (late 16th century), who was fond of ancient art, and whose collection included several important archaeological items, among which the obelisk.

After his death, the villa was scarsely cared for by his heirs, and ended up being bought by the French government. The ancient items of the collection were moved, including the obelisk, which was taken to Florence in 1788: it is still there, in the Boboli Gardens. A copy of the spire was carved in the 1800s, for Villa Medici, as a replacement.


In 1737, a very similar obelisk, which was never erected in Rome after having been unearthed, was given by cardinal Albani, a nephew of pope Clement XI, to the hometown of the latter, Urbino, where it stands now.

the copy of the obelisk in
Villa Medici's garden



introduction
general and
historical notes

part I
Egyptian
obelisks

part III
Roman
obelisks

part IV
the Obelisk of Axum
modern spires