~ Roman Monographs ~

· part III ·



alternative names: obelisk of Domitian, Pamphilian obelisk

In one of Rome's best known sites, piazza Navona, an obelisk stands on the most noble base that a monument ever had: the famous Fountain of the Rivers, one of Gian Lorenzo Bernini's masterpieces of Baroque sculpture (see Curious and Unusual page 3 for details).

overall view of the obelisk on the
famous Fountain of the Rivers by Bernini
Although it looks very similar to the previous spires, the monument was carved locally, by the late 1st century AD, and inscribed with hieroglyphs in the same fashion of the ones taken to Rome from the north African colony.
The obelisk measures 16.54 metres (54 ft), and with the famous base it reaches 30.17 m (99 ft). It was carved using granite coming from Egypt. It had been commissioned by emperor Domitian (AD 81-96), whose name is mentioned on the shaft as "living image of Ra". It once decorated the courtyard of the Iseum-Serapeum (described in page 2). In 311, emperor Maxentius moved the obelisk to the circus (i.e. a hippodrome) that was part of his private suburban estate, located outside the city, by the third mile of the Appian way, where chariot races used to be held.

the hieroglyphs were carved in Rome and
some of them have a slightly fancy shape

In ancient times piazza Navona too was a stadium, built by emperor Domitian (AD 81-96) for holding athletic competitions, ludi agonales in Latin, whence the name agonal given to the place.

the Circus of Maxentius in the mid 1500s: the obelisk lay broken in the middleof the arena
After the fall of the Roman empire, both stadiums were left in a state of abandonment, until they disappeared. The arena of the agonal stadium, for centuries left as a plain open place, by the end of the 1400s started to grow into the present plaza. When by the mid 1600s Bernini built there his famous fountain, he decided to raise on its top the obelisk that, in those days, lay broken among the ruins of the circus of Maxentius. Its restoration required some missing pieces to be carved again by using the same stone.

Bernini's choice of this monument was not simply a whim; the spire represented an ideal connection to the Roman arenas, as well as to emperor Domitian, who had sponsored the making of both the stadium and the obelisk.
On the pyramidion, the Roman emperor is featured as a seated pharaoh, flanked by two divinities (different on each side); on the northern and western sides, Domitian wears the double crown of Upper and Lower Egypt, while on the other two he wears the white one (Upper Egypt, east) and red one (Lower Egypt, south).
The bronze element above the obelisk has the shape of a dove that carries an olive tree branch: this is the heraldic device of the Pamphilj, the family whom pope Innocent X, the sponsor of Bernini's work, belonged to, whence the alternative name of this spire. The 1600s inscriptions at the base of the obelisk, which have turned almost unreadable, wrongly describe it as taken to Rome by Caracalla, and set the date of its erection to 1651.

the Circus of Maxentius today

↑ the pyramidion of the obelisk features Domitian

the Pamphilj device at the top of the monument →


alternative names: lunar obelisk, obelisk of the Garden of Sallust

the obelisk atop the Spanish Steps
Another Egyptian-like roman obelisk is the one at the top of the famous Spanish Steps, in piazza Trinitą dei Monti. It measures 13.9 m (45.5 ft), resting on a base as tall as the spire itself (total height: 30.45 m or 100 ft). It is known as Sallustian obelisk because it was found in the area once occupied by the gardens named after Sallust (tribune and historian, 1st century BC), where it was built likely under emperor Aurelianus (c.270) as a decoration for the local hippodrome (Circus Sallustianus).
After the fall of the Roman empire, it collapsed and broke into two pieces. It is mentioned by a late 1400s work as laying in a cane field outside Salaria Gate.
Sixtus V had intention to move the spire to the area by the Baths of Diocletian, but he died before this this project could be carried out.
In the 1600s, the Ludovisi family became the owners of the land where the fragments of the monument were still lying; about one century later (1722) they gave the broken monument to pope Clement XII. Once restored, it was moved to the grounds by St.John in the Lateran's basilica, Rome's cathedral. But its small size clashed with the imposing Lateran obelisk, which already stood there, made the new location unsuitable. So the small spire was simply set aside for another half century, before being moved in two parts to its present location by pope Pius VI, on April 18 and 20, 1789.

Its top element features a lily (or fleur-de-lys) and a star, connected by a tiny pine-cone; the fleur-de-lys is the heraldic device of the king of France, who sponsored the making of the church of Trinitą dei Monti, in front of which the obelisk stands.
It has hyeroglyphs along its shaft, somewhat roughly carved, which in ancient Roman times were copied from the ones of the Egyptian obelisk in the Circus Maximus (now in piazza del Popolo, see page 1); but the stone mason, who ignored their meaning, carved a few upside down!
In the past centuries it was wrongly believed to be related in some way to the lunar cult, ad it was therefore called 'the lunar spire'.
Its base was found only in 1843. In 1926, at the beginning of the Fascist regime, it was set on the Capitolium Hill, between Senators' Palace and the Aracoeli church (i.e. the same spot where once the obelisk now in villa Celimontana stood, see page 2), as a memorial dedicated to those who had died in the taking of Rome. After the end of the dictatorship, it was moved into its present location, turning it upside down so to cancel any residual memory of its previous dedication.

(↑ above) the top element;
the copied glyphs (right →)
are much rougher than
the ones found on
Egyptian obelisks


alternative names: obelisk of Antinous, Hadrian's obelisk

A similar Roman obelisk can be seen in the public gardens that stretch over the Pincian Hill, in the middle of an avenue named after the monument, viale dell'Obelisco. Emperor Hadrian had it carved in the 2nd century AD in memory of his young lover Antinous, who had drowned in the river Nile, and by whose memorial monument the spire was erected. About one century later, emperor Helagabalus had it moved for decorating the spine the Circus Varianus, a stadium which belonged to the imperial complex that included also the Sessorium (i.e. the imperial residence) and the Amphiteatrum Castrensis (see Aurelian's Walls, part II page 3), and was located off Porta Maggiore in the area called ad Spem Veterem, south-east of the set of walls. Here it fell and, as the other spires, it remained buried until 1570.

In 1632, pope Urban VIII had it taken in front of his family mansion, Palazzo Barberini, whose making was in progress; but since it hindered the passage of carriages, it was never erected and, in the second half of the following century, his descendants gave it away to the ruling pope of the time, Clement XIV.

← the obelisk in the Pincian Gardens

He kept it in the Cortile della Pigna (the large courtyard now part of the Vatican Museums), where it stayed up to 1822, when a third pope, Pius VII, decided to move the spire to its present location; on this occasion, his coat of arms (below) was carved on the base of the monument.
The bronze element at the top may refer either to Clement XIV or to Pius VII, as hills and stars are featured in the coats of arms of both popes.
The spire is 9.25 m (30.5 ft) tall, and the monument, including the base and the top element, reaches 17.25 m (56.5 ft).

coat of arms of Pius VII


is this an original Roman obelisk?

the small obelisk in Villa Borghese
In March 2012, while wandering through Villa Borghese, I reached by chance a tiny clearing surrounded by trees between viale del Lago and viale dell'Aranciera, with a small obelisk standing in the centre. Disregarding the base, the monument is about 3 m or 9 ft tall, more or less the same size as the small Egyptian obelisks coming from the Temple of Isis and Serapis, described in page 2. It is made of red granite, and has a plain shaft, with no hieroglyphs nor any other particular decoration. On examining its base, though, I noticed on one side four grooves arranged in parallel order, each of which with three holes, as if once occupied by metal plaques, probably bearing an inscription.
Since the northern part of Villa Borghese stretches over the grounds that once belonged to Villa Ludovisi which, in turn, partly covered the area where the Gardens of Sallust were found in the imperial age, the obelisk may be one of the decorations from of the latter site, such as the Sallustian obelisk previously described.
the four grooves with holes by the base

Having been unable to find further evidence that supports such speculation, nor a description of this monument in any of the sources at my disposal, I did not include it in the official list of ancient obelisks.

general and
historical notes

part I

part II
obelisks of the

part IV
the Obelisk of Axum
modern spires