Honors in Rome - Summer 2007
The mythology of the Egyptians tells us that the god of life and death, Osiris, was murdered by his brother Seth, only to rise and again walk in the world. Such a narrative could very well be applied to the obelisks of Rome. Trophies of the Empire fall only to be resurrected by the “second emperors of Rome”, the popes. Simple though they seem the obelisks have both a complex history and a subtle plan behind their placement. Throughout the history of Rome they have been associated with various forms of social and political power. Through an understanding of obelisks one can gain a better understanding of the city in which they stand.
The Egyptians were the first culture to practice the craft of obelisk carving and to this day the finest and most beautiful obelisks are still of their ancient making. In fact, many of the obelisks were already aged when they were taken to Rome. Many had also already been reused by numerous pharaohs. The Egyptians placed their obelisks as pairs at the entrance to temples and sacred burial locations, unlike the Romans who generally erected them as solitary monuments in circuses. Most sources agree that the obelisks were connected to the sun worship. To this end their pyramidions may have been covered in gold. Such ornamentation would create the illusion from a distance and in direct sunlight that the obelisk was emitting light. Pliny claims that the obelisk represented the ray from the sun and that they served as thrones for the sun god Aten. Accurate or not, these ideas were held by the Romans and the Romans erected their stolen obelisks with them in mind.
The Romans first began to acquire obelisks when Augustus defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra, and the Empire gained control of Egypt in 30 BC. To celebrate his triumph, Augustus brought the first obelisk back to Rome. This set the tone for all subsequent obelisk use in Rome. After this Roman emperors would continue to move obelisks to their capital city. Augustus later had several obelisks transported using massive boats that employed up to three hundred rowers. While they were never able to carve obelisks as well as the Egyptians, the Roman engineers had several advantages over the Egyptians in their transportation. They had at their disposal the compound pulley as well as ample timber. The Egyptians on the other hand had worked primarily with stone. The Romans though were not content only with the obelisks that had already been made, but also sculpted their own in both Alexandria and Rome. They even went so far as to carve fake hieroglyphics in some of their creations. After Augustus, Caligula, Diocletian, Domitian, and Hadrian all erected obelisks in Rome.
With the decline of Rome and the onset of the Middle Ages the obelisks again became ruins. They fell one by one until only the Vatican obelisk remained standing. Some were broken into several pieces during the many sackings of Rome. Through the periodical flooding of the Tiber some obelisks were completely buried under sediment. They would remain hidden or ignored until the popes began to turn an eye to them. The first of these re-erections came from the one of the most ambitious of the Counter-Reformation popes, Sixtus V (Felice Peretti, 1585-90). Sixtus V commissioned the genius engineer and architect Domenico Fontana to relocate the Vatican obelisk to the front of St. Peter’s. This undertaking was a landmark in the history of engineering, requiring the sum of contemporary mechanical science. After his success with the Vatican obelisk, Domenico Fontana went on to find and erect four more fallen obelisks for Sixtus. These include the obelisk in the Piazza dell'Esquilino, the Piazza del Popolo, the Piazza S. Maria Maggiore, and the Piazza S. Giovanni in Laterano. While several Popes such as Innocent X and Alexander VII followed Sixtus in erecting obelisks during their pontificates (the Piazza Navona obelisk and the Piazza della Minerva respectively), the second greatest of the “megolithomaniacs” was Pius VI. He had Giovanni Antinori re-erect the second obelisk that had stood before the Mausoleum of August, the first having been erected in the Piazza dell’Esquilino. Like Sixtus V, Pius VI went on to erect two more obelisks, again through the skill of Antinori. These were the Trinità dei Monti obelisk and the Montecitorio obelisk. Many other Western cities have followed the lead of Rome and now obelisks can be found in Paris, Constantinople, London, and New York.
Definition and Variation
With the popularity of obelisks has come a host of obelisk imitations. A true obelisk has a square, tapering shaft. At its top is a pyramidion that has a taper of sixty degrees. A true obelisk is also carved from a single piece of stone. The Egyptians used red granite and this was the preferred stone of the Romans as well. Obelisks generally sit upon some sort of base that raises it some distance above the ground. Obelisks have been presented in different ways at different times during their history. In the Baroque period obelisks were usually accompanied with a multimedia presentation of sculptures or fountains. Before this (such as the obelisks erected by Sixtus V), obelisks usually stood alone in an open space. The obelisks stolen from Egypt usually have hieroglyphic inscriptions on them. One cannot necessarily identify an Egyptian origin by this though because some of the obelisks made in Rome are inscribed with either genuine hieroglyphics or imitation symbols. These essential qualities above mark all the true obelisks that stand in Rome.
Some obelisks have had special features or ornamentation that set them apart. In Imperial Rome obelisks were sometimes oriented such that they acted as giant sundials. Augustus used an obelisk for such a purpose in the Campus Martius where he had the points that the pinnacle of the obelisk’s shadow touched at noon on the winter and summer solstice marked. To better define this tip, a globe was set at the top of the pyramidion. However, the weight of the obelisk caused it to sink into the earth, distorting the calculations and terminating its time marking capabilities. When one of these sundial obelisks was re-erected by Sixtus V, he removed the golden globe, which by that time was rumored to contain the ashes of Caesar. The major obelisks that now stand in Rome are also adorned with bronze ornamentation. This often includes symbols from the reigning pope’s arms. For example, at the top of the Piazza Navona obelisk sits a dove, the symbol for Innocent X, the Pope that re-erected this particular obelisk. Another important addition made to many of the obelisks by the popes of the Counter-reformation was a cross. Since the basic shape of the obelisk is so normalized, it is often only with their ornamentation that we can easily decipher their latest political agenda.
Like any other monument, obelisks generally serve multiple functions simultaneously. Except as sundials, these functions are rarely practical and indeed nearly always involve the delivery of a message from the erector. For this reason the function of obelisks and the goals of their patron will be discusses together since they are in a sense inseparable. The function was to deliver the particular message, this was also the goal of the structure. All of this is further complicated by the fact that these multiple functions have shifted over time. In fact, the obelisks are interesting in their ability to absorb new intentions without having their structure significantly changed. Furthermore, different groups of people would understand the obelisk upon different levels. Regardless of specifics though, the underlying function of obelisks has always been to assert the political and social power of the current power holders.
When the obelisks were carried back from Egypt after its conquest they were seen as trophies, physical embodiments of Rome’s power as well as the power of Augustus. The presence of hieroglyphics would have sealed this meaning for those that did not immediately recognize them as Egyptian. The transportation of the obelisk itself was a symbol of the power of Rome. To move the obelisk all the way to the Nile and then ferry it across the Mediterranean must have proved a formidable task for the Roman Engineers. It is not insignificant that Egypt was also one of the principal grain suppliers to Rome. At this point in its history the city could no longer support itself on the surrounding countryside, and it relied heavily on the fertility of the Nile. The Classicist Grant Parker theorizes that the very transportation of the obelisk was an assertion of the power of Rome to move grain. The obelisk would moreover function as a displacement of concerns over the availability of food. Worries about grain supply were especially pertinent to the lower classes and this interestingly suggests that this message might have been directly aimed at an audience below the rich and powerful.
There were other reasons for Augustus to be interested in the obelisks. Augustus had traveled to Egypt and had there seen the tomb of Alexander. At its entrance stood two obelisks. Wishing to associate himself with Alexander upon his death, Augustus commissioned the construction of two new obelisks out of red granite and placed them at the entrance to his mausoleum. The uneducated might not have caught this reference, but the upper classes certainly would have. This action exemplifies the obelisk’s use as a way of connecting the previously powerful to the currently powerful. In this sense the obelisk is a well defined symbol of power. Often the obelisk would not only associate the possessor with the powerful previous possessor but would attempt to show how the current possessor had more power than the previous one. Egypt was a powerful civilization but Rome must be an even more powerful civilization since it was able to take the obelisk. It must be remember of course that through this very comparison the current owner of the obelisk expresses his respect for the previous owner. The Romans had a great respect for the Egyptian civilization and its religious beliefs as will be discussed later.
The Counter-reformation popes followed this pattern also. For the Popes though, the obelisk was a way of connecting their city back to the glory of Imperial Rome. While the obelisk structure originated in Egypt it now signified their previous owner, the Roman emperor. An inscription on the Quirnal Obelisk commissioned by Pope Pius VI connects him to both Alexander and Augustus, asserting his dominance over the former (this obelisk stood between two statues of Castor and Pollux. As the quote shows, Pius found it more convenient to mistake them for dual Alexanders):
“I, once carved from the cliffs of Egypt and carried by Romulean force over waves to stand as a wondrous monument to the tomb of Augustus, where the Tiber washes the grove of the Caesars, I, whom age vainly tried to bury in the mounded ruins when I was overturned and broken, I am called back to the light by Pius, who bids me to stand, repaired, high on the summit of the Quirnal Hill between the greatest images of Alexander, where I will testify how much lesser Alexander was than Pius.”
The Roman Emperors and Counter-reformation popes also lived during times when Egyptian culture, particularly their religious beliefs, was of intense interest to the educated, upper classes. Eastern cults were popular in Imperial Rome and foremost among these was the cult of Isis, the Egyptian goddess of fertility and femininity. The Emperor Domitian so devoted to her that he built the Iseum, a temple complex for her worship. In a similar vein, Domitian commissioned portraits of himself in which he was portrayed as an Egyptian Pharoah. Domitian more importantly commissioned the carving of the Piazza Navona obelisk, which had his name correctly written in hieroglyphics upon it. Archeologists believe that this obelisk probably first stood in front of the Iseum before it was moved to the Stadium where Piazza Navona now is located. Besides its popular deities, Egypt was associated with timeless wisdom and the occult. This association would remain with the obelisks until their re-erection. Along with their pagan Roman origins, their magical affiliation would necessitate their Christianization by any Pope that wished to erect them.
“Egyptomania” re-emerged with the end of the Reniassance. One of the most interesting figures involved in this was Giordano Bruno, a philosopher, priest, cosmologist, and occultist. He believed that Egyptian religious practices were of great importance to Christianity since they constituted an older, more universal system. It would be through these beliefs that religious differences would be overcome. Bruno even went so far as to suggest that the symbol of the cross had originated in Egypt. Though he was burned at the stake for these kinds of ideas, there were others in greater power that remained free to publicly pursue studies in all things Egyptian. The Borgia apartment in the Vatican depicted Isis and other Egyptian deities, and Pope Alexander VI himself claimed descent from Osiris. It is possible that the erection of the obelisks at this time were an outlet for this widespread interest in Egypt among the educated classes.
There were more universally utilitarian functions for the obelisks of Sixtus V and his followers than just their channeling of the current “Egyptomania”. The obelisks were erected to served as landmarks in the disordered city of Rome. Sixtus V saw Rome as the seat of both temporal and spiritual power. On the first day of his pontificate, Sixtus V set upon the reorganization of the city. He widened and created new roads and at the focal points of these roads he placed obelisks. These obelisks would be dynamic in their ability to draw visitor’s attention as well as their bodies to different parts of the city depending upon which direction one approached them. The Quirnal Obelisk for example can be seen from a long distance down the Via del Quirnale. Its placement draws one toward it and therefore into the heart of the city. Some obelisks were placed such that they could “see” other obelisks. The obelisk at Trinità dei Monti can “see” the obelisk at S. Maria Maggiore for example. In this way the obelisks functioned to connect the various regions of Rome into an intelligible whole.
Sixtus V also began the practice of using obelisks to mark important locations in the city. The three obelisks erected by Sixtus stand in front of the major basilicas of Rome (St. Peter’s, S. Giovanni in Laterano, and S. Maria Maggiore). Three of Sixtus’ obelisks also mark important papal residences. The obelisk at the Piazza del Popolo marks one of the primary entrances to Rome and it is the focal point of a number of major roads in Rome. A confused pilgrim would be able to find his way to a particular church of pilgrimage if he could only spot an obelisk. Popes also often used obelisks to adorn locations in Rome that were important to their family. Innocent X erected the Piazza Navona obelisk in its current location because the square had long been important to his family, the Pamphili. By using the obelisks the popes were able to highlight certain locations that asserted both the church’s and their own personal power.
The Vatican Obelisk
To better examine how an individual obelisk might function, it is instructive to analyze several obelisks’ placement and ornamentation. The first of these is the Vatican obelisk. This obelisk had been brought to Rome by Caligula and set up in the Circus Gia et Neronis where is supposedly “watched” the martyrdom of hundreds of Christians. It was also the only obelisk that stood all throughout the middle ages and the first obelisk to be moved by a pope. This pope was Sixtus V, who had had the intention of changing the position of the monument even before he entered the papacy. The current location was awkward since it stood behind the Vatican and prevented proper framing of it. The obelisk was also beginning to disappear into the earth. Its base was already buried. Moving the obelisk to the front of St. Peter’s Basilica would be a symbol of the triumph of Christian Rome over Pagan Rome. Its monolithic shape would also fit with Sixtus’ plan to make Rome look like center of religious and temporal power on Earth.
The movement of the obelisk would itself be a monumental task and would require one of the best architects of the age, Domenico Fontana. Fontana would make use of two towers and forty capstans to first lower the obelisk and then later raise it. The pope issued a command that during this process a bystander who spoke (crowds came to watch the monument being raised) could be punished by death. Legend has it that at one point while it was being lowered, the crowd noticed that there was a problem with the lines holding the obelisk, they were beginning to become dangerously hot. Then, a sailor in the crowd broke the command when he shouted “Acque alle funi!” (“Water the lines”). Water was deposited on the lines, they held, and the project was saved. Instead of being punished, the Pope rewarded the sailor and his family by giving him the exclusive privilege of selling palms on palm Sunday. It is easy to forget that besides their importance to architecture and art history, the obelisks have played an important role in the progress of engineering.
On September 28, 1586 the obelisk was consecrated with a cross by Sixtus V. Below the cross was added pontifical devices of the five stacked peaks and above them the many pointed star, thus setting a standard which following popes would later imitate.
The Quirinal Obelisk
The second example is the Quirinal Obelisk. This obelisk stands in the Piazza del Quirinale and was erected by Giovanni Antinori for Pius VI. Like most of the other Baroque obelisks, the Quirinal obelisk is a multimedia presentation. It contains different elements from three distinctly different time periods. The obelisk stands on a base in between the two ancient horse tamer statues, all of which stand on another base behind a fountain. The Piazza Quirinale contains several important papal building. The most significant was the papal summer residence (now the president’s building), but the square also included the papal datary and the papal stables. The obelisk would highlight these buildings. The obelisk would also terminate Pius VI Strada Pia. In fact at the crossing of the Strada Pia and Quattro Fontane one can see both of the obelisks from Augustus’ Mausoleum. And as mentioned above, from outside the obelisk could draw viewers into the heart of the city. All these observations make it clear that the location of the Quirnal obelisk was clearly thought out and serves to augment the way a viewer of city would see both the obelisk and the structures that surround it.
Like the Vatican obelisk, the Quirinal obelisk was given significant bronze ornamentation. Art historians are also fortunate to have a letter written by Antinori in which he defends his choice of ornamentation. This gives a clear picture of what the artist/engineer was thinking when he created the adornment of the obelisk. First the obelisk was missing an apex so the bronze ornaments helped draw attention away from this. Antinori placed Eagle shaped astragals that allude to Pius’ arms as well as four projecting Eoli. Furthermore Antinori claimed that he the eagles had been inspired by the column of Trajan and “correspond well with current taste”. The eagles also serve to animate the horses, which had been rotated to look as if they were rearing up away from the obelisk. To those that said there was too much ornamentation Antinori retorted, “simplicity is beautiful, but sometimes it stands out best against some slightly more embellished part that highlights its natural grace”. The Quirinal obelisk shows how through ornamentation the plainness of an obelisk can be enhanced (through contrast) and the intentions of the new erector can be expressed.
The obelisks of Rome are structures that continue to influence generation after generation. For evidence of this one need look only at the way that they continued to make appearances in history. Their massive bulk straddles the whole of western history from the earliest civilizations of the Nile delta to modern day Rome. But it was Rome’s use of obelisks that sparked the modern crazed and it would safe to say that Rome’s obelisk tradition is responsible for the obelisks that one can find in Paris, London, and New York.
Through their existence the presentation of the obelisk has changed. Used in pairs by the Egyptians, functioning as sundials or trophies in Ancient Rome, erected as the marker of a pilgrimage church in Counter-reformation Rome. However the essential design has remained fundamentally the same. Perhaps this is why the modern viewer can still be entranced by its monolithic bulk. It is so simple and universal; there are no barriers that inhibit it from being transferred from one culture or time period to another. It is made up of two simple geometrical entities. The author of this paper found the obelisk’s universal admiration to be their most interesting aspect. Another appeal might be the age of the obelisk. They have come to be associated, like Egypt, with secrets and ancient wisdom. Regardless of this, obelisks continue to animate the streets of Rome and to remind us how easily we place meaning on what is really little different than a larger version of the proverbial block of stone.
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