by Judith Anne Testa
Rome has more obelisks than any other city in the world, but wherefore, and why?
A tour of Rome's obelisks is also a journey through time and history. Rome has more obelisks -- 19 -- than any other city, and each has its own story. But where to begin? With the oldest? The tallest? The most famous?
We might start instead with what an obelisk is. For Americans, the most familiar example is the Washington Monument -- a four-sided, extremely elongated pyramid. But the monument to our first president is an actual building, constructed of brick and with an elevator inside, while the obelisks in Rome are monoliths, carved from single, solid blocks of granite.
The Egyptians invented and raised the earliest obelisks more than 3,000 years ago, but it was the Greeks -- the first westerners to gape at these amazing objects -- who gave us our word for them: obeliskos, which means a skewer. Apparently these immensely tall, slender monuments reminded the Greeks of the little pointed sticks on which they roasted meat!
Our next questions might be how -- and why -- did these extremely heavy stone objects make their way from Egypt to Rome? To answer those questions requires a quick glance at Roman history. Rome's conquest of Egypt in the mid-first century BC led to a Roman passion for things Egyptian. With the exception of Greece, conquered a century earlier, no other country had such a deep influence on the culture of Rome. Egyptian gods entered the Roman pantheon, with temples built in Rome to honor them; Roman emperors had themselves portrayed as pharaohs; miniature pyramids appeared in Rome as burial monuments. And just as the Romans had hauled home Greek statues by the thousands, so they brought back from Egypt much rarer, heavier and more majestic trophies, stripping Egypt of its obelisks and transferring them -- with enormous effort -- across the Mediterranean Sea to Rome. So great was the enthusiasm for obelisks that the Romans even made a few in imitation of Egyptian examples.
In Egypt obelisks had served religious and celebratory purposes, often described in the hieroglyphics carved into the obelisk's shaft. But for the Romans, obelisks were the spoils of war, to be used as decoration for the city's race courses, tombs and temples. And once in place, there they stood, century after century, silent, stony witnesses to the rise of Rome to a world empire, to the roaring excitement of chariot races, to the persecution and subsequent triumph of Christianity. And as Rome fell, so did all but one of the obelisks, knocked down and broken into pieces by earthquakes or invaders. Their remains disappeared under the accumulated debris of centuries, and it was only with the renewed enthusiasm for antiquity in the Renaissance that diggers among the ruins began to uncover these gigantic, forgotten monuments.
The unlikely hero in the re-raising of Rome's obelisks is Pope Sixtus V. A stern man with a passion for executing criminals and heretics, and a notorious destroyer of ancient statuary and architecture, Sixtus was also an ambitious road builder. His plan for connecting Rome's major churches through a series of new, straight streets also included an idea for using obelisks -- the pope wanted them to punctuate the piazzas joined by his new road system.
Sixtus had four huge obelisks moved, repaired and re-raised: at St. Peter's (1585-86), S. Maria Maggiore (1587), S. Giovanni in Laterano (1588), and Piazza del Popolo (1589). Of these, the most renowned is one unrelated to Sixtus's system of roads, but of great symbolic importance: the obelisk now in front of St. Peter's. When Sixtus became pope in 1585 it was standing amid the ruins of Nero's Circus (race course) at the foot of the Vatican Hill and to the left of St. Peter's church, which was then still under construction -- the only obelisk that had never fallen. At its top was a gilded bronze globe that, according to legend, contained the ashes of Julius Caesar. The obelisk, from the 1100s B.C., had been brought to Rome by the emperor Caligula in 37 A.D. on a specially built ship, and erected in his circus, which a few decades later became the Circus of Nero. There, in 64 A.D., perhaps in the shadow of this very obelisk, St. Peter was crucified, and his nearby burial place later became the site of the church dedicated to him.
The problems of moving a standing, intact obelisk 85 feet high and weighing 440 tons might have given any pope pause, but Sixtus put his wizard of an engineer, Domenico Fontana, on the task. The job of lowering the obelisk to the ground, moving it 275 yards and then re-erecting it in front of St. Peter's was a fantastically complicated feat of engineering that took nearly a year. It required enormous pulleys, levers and winches, close to 200 horses, and the labor of nearly a thousand men. A fresco in the Vatican Library, which can be viewed by visitors going through the Vatican Museums, shows the raising of the obelisk.
That final, crucial step, raising the obelisk onto its new base, provided a moment of breathless suspense for the pope, his engineer and the crowd observing the event. Sixtus, never one for half-measures, had ordered the work to proceed in total silence -- on pain of death. As the men and horses hauled, and the obelisk inched upward, friction caused smoke to rise from the taut ropes. At that moment a sailor in the crowd risked death by shouting, "WATER ON THE ROPES!" Fontana gave that order, and his workmen consequently succeeded in putting the obelisk into position. Sixtus amply rewarded both Fontana and the sailor. He raised his engineer to the nobility, and granted the sailor's family a monopoly on the sale of Palm Sunday fronds bought by the Vatican. Those fronds still come from the sailor's hometown of Bordighera.
And what about that fabulous gilded bronze ball reputed to hold the ashes of Caesar? Sixtus had it removed and replaced with a cross, thus Christianizing the pagan obelisk. The pope had no patience with "impure superstitions," as noted in the Latin inscription on the obelisk's base. He had the ball opened and of course it was empty. Surprisingly, Sixtus spared it from destruction and it's now in the Capitoline Museum. A curious detail is that its surface is pocked with bullet holes. During the Sack of Rome in 1527, while the obelisk was still in its original location, soldiers used it for target practice.
Sixtus' second obelisk raising took place at the church of S. Maria Maggiore. Directly behind the apse stands an obelisk from the tomb of the emperor Augustus. It's a Roman work, made in imitation of one Augustus had seen when he was in Alexandria, Egypt, and visited the tomb of Alexander the Great. Sixtus had it placed on a pedestal to mark the beginning of the street, now called via Merulana, that connects S. Maria Maggiore with Rome's cathedral, S. Giovanni in Laterano.
Sixtus next turned his attention to the tallest and oldest of all Rome's obelisks, excavated in the ruins of the Circus Maximus. Made from a single piece of red granite 110 feet high, it was carved in Egypt around 1500 B.C., which means it's more than 3,500 years old. One of Constantine's sons brought it to Rome in 357 A.D., on an enormous, custom-built ship. When found in the 1500s it was in three pieces, which must have made moving it to the piazza of S. Giovanni in Laterano quite a bit easier than the initial move from Egypt.
Nonetheless, the task of dragging the pieces across Rome, then reassembling and raising them, again required the services of Domenico Fontana. Here too, at the very top, a cross Christianizes a monument so old that even the ancient Romans considered it "ancient." The obelisk stands at an important crossroads where two of the streets built by Sixtus (via Merulana and via S. Giovanni in Laterano) intersect, and it also replaces the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (then thought to represent Constantine) which had stood on the spot, but which had been moved to the Capitoline Hill in 1538.
The last obelisk put in place by Sixtus is the nearly 80-foot high one that now surmounts the Fountain of the Lions in Piazza del Popolo. Brought to Rome by Augustus, it dates from about 1300 B.C. and came from the Egyptian city of Heliopolis. Its hieroglyphs mention pharaoh Ramses II; some believe it was during his reign that the Exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt occurred.
Like the Lateran obelisk, it had adorned the Circus Maximus and was unearthed in several pieces. Sixtus thought it would make a fine focal point for pilgrims entering the city from the north, through the Porta del Popolo, as well as for those on the three streets that fan out from that piazza: via Ripetta, via del Corso and via del Babuino. In 1818 the four lion fountains were added flanking the obelisk, to celebrate the completion of a new aqueduct. Although the whole piazza was redesigned at the same time, nobody even considered trying to duplicate Fontana's feat of moving the obelisk!
(A subsequent article will cover the other obelisks in Rome.)