Rome’s obelisks in antique photos II

Another of Rome’s obelisks was built by Psamtik II (6th century BC), brought back from Egypt by Augustus, and placed by his order as a gnomon in the huge sundial in Campus Martius, along Via Flaminia (now Via del Corso); it later fell down, was recovered by Pope Pius VI, and was placed in Piazza Montecitorio.

Two more obelisks used to guard the Mausoleum of Augustus, and are visible today in Rome: one was moved to Piazza Esquilino by the will of Pope Sixtus V, and the other between the statues of the Dioscuri, in front of the Quirinal Palace, by order of Pope Pius VII.

Then there is a Roman-era obelisk that towers over Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers, in the center of Piazza Navona; it was commissioned by Domitian and placed by Maxentius in his circus along the Via Appia, and later moved to its current location by order of Pope Innocent X.

Pope Clement XI instead decided to complement the fountain in Piazza della Rotonda, in front of the Pantheon, with the small obelisk of Ramses II that Domitian had placed in the temple of Isis in the Campus Martius.

Another obelisks from the Iseum Campensis, found in 1883, is now on the Monument to the Italian soldiers killed in Dogali; the one marking the center of the Trinita de’ Monti, instead, comes from the Gardens of Sallust and was moved to its current location by order of Pope Pius VI. A note of interest is that its hieroglyphs, added in Roman times, are a copy of those on the monument in Piazza del Popolo.

Another obelisk built by Ramses II adorns the park of the 16th-century Villa Mattei Celimontana, which used to be next to the Basilica of Ara Coeli at the Capitol, and was brought here by the will of Ciriaco Mattei, as part of his collection of antiquities.

Then there is the obelisk on the Pincian Hill, near Casina Valadier, dedicated by Emperor Hadrian to the memory of his young lover Antinous, who drowned in the Nile; once near the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, it was moved to the Pincian by the will of Pope Pius VII.

There is the obelisk of Piazza della Minerva, near the magisterial façade of the Church of Saint Mary above Minerva, so-called because it was built on the ruins of a temple dedicated to the goddess. This obelisk from the 6th century BC was part of the Iseum Campensis complex and was placed, by decision of Pope Alexander VII and according to Bernini’s design, on the statue of an elephant, which commemorates the small pachyderm that the King of Portugal had given Pope Leo X. The monument was inspired by a an emblem of “Poliphilo’s Strife of Love in a Dream”, but local Romans call it ‘er purcin de la Minerva’ (literally, “Minerva’s little pig”); it alludes, as stated by the inscription on it, to the fact that great wisdom (represented by the hieroglyphs carved on the obelisk) should always be supported by a strong intellect (the strength of the elephant).

A modern copy of an ancient obelisk – probably from the Iseum Campensis as well, and now in Florence – is in the garden of the Villa Medici (French Academy) on the Pincian Hill. The original obelisk was part of the collection of antiquities of the House of Medici, who transferred it from Rome to Florence in 1790.

There are also modern obelisks in Rome, such as those in Baveno granite erected in 1842 by one of the Prince Torlonias for his villa on Via Nomentana (where the Mussolini family lived); or the monolithic Carrara marble one erected in 1932, in what is now called Foro Italico. Some monuments look like obelisks but technically are ‘stelae’: for example he one dedicated to Guglielmo Marconi in the homonymous square in the EUR district, presented in 1959 and covered with 92 bas-reliefs by Arturo Dazzi; and the one from Axum that was placed near the Circus Maximus, in front of the building intended to be the Ministry of the Colonies (now the headquarters of the FAO), during the fascist regime, which has since been returned to Ethiopia.

Since the end of the 16th century, taking obelisks from Egypt or imitating their monumental shape – even for lamp holders like the ones on Via della Conciliazione – became the norm to celebrate political, cultural and military power. Think of the giant obelisk in Washington, or Cleopatra’s Needle in New York; the obelisk built in Buenos Aires, or the Egyptian ones brought to Urbino, Florence, Saint Petersburg, Paris, London, Durham and Wirborne in England; or even the obelisk built by Tuthmosis III, which Emperor Theodosius had re-erected in the circus of Constantinople in the 4th century, and which now stands next to the Walled Obelisk that was originally decorated with gilded bronze plaques.

And there are many more, modern obelisks all around the world, from Catania to Munich. Our taste for them seems universal in space and time: even the Etruscans often placed small-scale obelisks next to their elders’ tombs.

Alberto Manodori Sagredo

December 13, 2013

Rome’s obelisks in antique photos II

Roma