~ Roman Monographs ~

· part IV ·



Up to November 2003, by the eastern end of the Circus Maximus' area, stood one of Rome's most peculiar ancient obelisks, carved around the 4th century AD. This spire differred from all the others, being Ethiopian. It is no longer there because in 2005 it was given back to the country from where it had been removed, although the handover took several years to be completed.

a view of the obelisk
prior to 2003
By the time the monument was carved, the city of Axum, where it was originally located, was the capital of an important kingdom, which in the 4th century converted to the Christian religion, and therefore established cultural relations with Byzantine Egypt.

its false door at the base

decorations along the shaft
During this period, a certain number of similar spires were known to exist in that area, most of which are still there (see the following pictures).

The main differences between Ethiopian obelisks and Egyptian ones are that the former have a rectangular section, with a false door carved at the base on one side. Further elements such as small windows and disk patterns decorate the shaft up to the top. These spires end with a semicircular element, enclosed by metal frames (now missing in this obelisk): the structure probably mimics a tower that points towards the heavens.

the top, once decorated
with metal parts

View of Axum, a painting by Henri Salt (1780 - 1827)

← some obelisks in Axum, in 2004
  (courtesy of Kokeb Tarekegn)
The one taken to Rome, though, is the only obelisk of this type known with decorations on all four sides, and a false door on two of them. It is also one of the tallest ones known, measuring 24 metres (78.5 feet).

Unlike the other ancient obelisks, the one from Axum has not stood here for a very long time, having been brought to Rome only in 1937, during Italy's colonial campaign in Africa. The spire was placed in front of the present F.A.O. building, which once housed the Ministry of Colonies; therefore the obelisk itself had become a symbol of colonialism, although since the fall of the fascist regime this meaning had completely vanished.

According to the Peace Treaty signed in 1947, Italy should have given back to Ethiopia all works of art taken during the war, from 1935 onwards, obviously including the Axumite monument.

Therefore in March 1998, after 61 years, the obelisk was scaffolded and wrapped up, in the wait to be taken back to its country of origin.

old pictures taken in 1937,
featuring the obelisk still
interred, then while being
moved in blocks from Ethiopia
(centre) to Rome (bottom), with
San Paolo Gate in the background

checking the damage
in May 2002 before
the restoration works

But in 2001 an officer of the conservative government, opposing such agreement, delayed the scheduled handover, and the scaffolding was taken off: the Ethiopian spire stood by the Circus Maximus for five more years. During this time interval, in May 2002, the monument suffered some damages caused by a thunderbolt that struck its top during a strong storm: a large fragment of the uppermost element was chipped off.

The restoration works were immediately arranged, although they lasted several months. Once completed, in December 2003, the works for disassembling the monument started, and a few weeks later the obelisk of Axum was no longer one of Rome's landmarks.

After some bureaucratic formalities, a careful packaging and a long wait in a hangar, at last the obelisk was taken back to its country of origin, where in 2008 it was stood again among other similar monuments.

↑ Rome, March 2004: the site where the obelisk once stood

Axum, November 2008: the obelisk being set into place, next to another spire →
(courtesy of Kokeb Tarekegn)

(19th-20th centuries)


the obelisk in front of the villa's main mansion

By the mid 19th century, two monuments in the shape of full-sized Egyptian obelisks were commissioned by Alessandro Torlonia for the gardens of one of his suburban mansions, along via Nomentana. They were dedicated to the memory of his father, the rich banker Giovanni, who had started the making of the villa. The spires were carved in Baveno, northern Italy, and were taken to Rome by ship, following a very complicated route: the river Po, then all around the Italian coast via Adriatic Sea, Ionian Sea and Thyrrenian Sea, and finally upstream along the rivers Tiber and Aniene. The journey took forty-seven days; eight more were needed to carry each of the spires into place, on June 4 and July 26, 1842.

the other obelisk, at the back of the mansion
Being the most important monuments of the villa, they were set in front and at the back of the main pavillion, where the owner dwelt.
On this occasion, a public party was held; anybody could take part (to wear decent clothes was the only condition for being let in), and the event was especially remembered for the enormous quantity of free wine offered to the guests.

↑ Alessandro Torlonia's cartouches and
← those of Giovanni Torlonia along the shaft

one of the obelisks arrives by ship along the Aniene
(19th century etching)

The twin spires are identical in shape and measure 10.28 metres (33.7 feet). The name of Alessandro Torlonia spelt in hieroglyphs can be read on small cartouches carved on the four sides of the pyramidion, while those of his father's name are found along the shaft (see pictures).

According to a typical whim of the early 1800s, besides the two obelisks, other monuments imitating original Roman ones can be found in the villa, such as a temple, honorary columns, statues, etc. Several pavillions in different styles (some of which rather extravagant) and the luxuriant vegetation make Villa Torlonia a fascinating place to visit, especially in springtime.


Villa Borghese is Rome's largest public park; it dated back to the first half of the 1600s, when cardinal Scipione Borghese, the nephew of pope Paul V, decided to enlarge one of the family's grounds (or 'vineyards', as they used to be called in those days) located just off Pinciana Gate, and build a mansion there, thus turning it into a real villa.
The enlarged estate stretched westwards up to the muro torto, i.e. the part of Aurelian's wall below the Pincio Hill that had partly collapsed in ancient times, by the sharp bend not far from Popolo Gate. Then, in the early 1800s, one of the cardinal's descendants, Camillo Borghese (the husband of the better known Paolina, depicted by sculptor Antonio Canova in his most famous work), bought and annexed the adjacent Villa Giustiniani, thus enlarging the estate up to its present size.
by the top edge of Giovan Battista Nolli's map (1748) the original extension of Villa Borghese,
highlighted in green, before the annexation of Villa Giustiniani (in yellow), reached the muro torto;
the red dot marks the spot where, in the following century, the Egyptian gate was built
To mark the boundary between the new and the old grounds, in 1831 architect and archaeologist Luigi Canina devised and built a scenographic gate in Egyptian style, consisting of a short porch with rather stout columns on each side of the way, with an obelisk standing in front; the latter bears hieroglyphs inscribed only on its front side.


In 1932 a white obelisk was erected in front of the Foro Italico, the large sports complex built during the years of the fascist regime, inspired by the grandeur of ancient Rome's imperial architecture (in particular, the forum). The individual buildings and statues it comprises, though, a work by architect Enrico Del Debbio, were drawn following a square-shaped and rather essential style, typical of that period.
The complex was originally named after the fascist dictator, whence the words MVSSOLINI carved in large letters along the shaft of the obelisk. Instead on the front of the base is the word DVX (Latin for "leader"), while on its right side, in smaller letters, is the text OPERA BALILLA ANNO X (i.e. the name of the Fascist youth organization, and the date 1932).
The top part, which is the actual monolith, measures 17.4 metres or 57 feet, but its size is almost doubled by the tall base, irregular in shape, thus reaching a height of 36.3 m or 119 ft.
The popular belief that the upper element of the monument (picture on the left) was made of gold, proved a fake soon after the fall of the dictator.

the obelisk by the Foro Italico


Via della Conciliazione is the broad avenue that from the western bank of the river Tiber reaches the basilica of St.Peter in the Vatican. It was created on a project by Marcello Piacentini, starting from 1936, by pulling down the whole central part of the district, as described in the page about Borgo. The works were completed no sooner than in 1950, on the occasion of the Jubilee Year. Since the two sides of the street are not perfectly regular (due to the preservation of some ancient buildings), in order to create an optical illusion of alignment, twelve street lamps in the shape of obelisks were stood in a row on each side of the road. In fact, the avenue's axis is aligned with the Vatican obelisk in St.Peter's square, rather than with the basilica's front.
The lamps are made of travertine, with the base forming a seat and the lantern fitted at the top, in a fashion similar to the bronze elements featuring the heraldic devices of the popes found above the pyramidion of the real obelisks.
(picture taken from Wikipedia Commons →)

The Roman people, rather skeptic about the final arrangement of the avenue, soon gave the glowing obelisks the unmerciful nickname of ...suppositories!

Curiously, what look like obelisk-related decorations can be found also on Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II, the bridge that spans the Tiber leading towards via della Conciliazione (opened in 1911). Along its sides, four large groups carved in travertine are set in alternate order with six short spires, such as the one shown on the right, whose shape is in fact that of an obelisk, including a flat pyramidion above.

one of the obelisk-like elements on Ponte Vittorio Emanuele II →


Approaching Rome's southernmost district EUR, the first monument that comes in sight is a tall spire dedicated to one of Italy's most important modern scientists and inventors, Guglielmo Marconi.
The monument had been commissioned by Mussolini in 1937 to sculptor Arturo Dazzi, as a landmark for the main square of the new district that was being built to host the International Exposition of 1942, an edition which never took place, due to the war. In fact, many projects were left unfinished, among whom the spire.
Several works were retrieved in the second half of the 1950s, on the occasion of the forthcoming Olympic Games, held in Rome in 1960. In December 1959, this 45 metre-tall structure (147.5 feet) was erected in the same spot where it had originally been scheduled.
The core of the spire is made of concrete, while the 92 panels it is covered with, which illustrate Marconi's merits and other allegorical scenes, are carved in white marble.

← the spire dedicated to Marconi some panels from the bottom →

...Do you feel like visiting more obelisks around the world? You may try the webpages by:

  • Carlos Lunghi

  • Shoji Okamoto

  • introduction
    general and
    historical notes

    part I

    part II
    obelisks of the

    part III
    the Obelisk of Axum
    modern obelisks