Obelisks in Rome

The Obelisk at Piazza Navona

Rome is renowned for (among many other, er, more important things) its vast “collection” of obelisks. These obelisks, most featuring hieroglyphics running their length, typically came to Rome through conquests in Egypt. Victorious generals and emperors, like Augustus, would set them up in forums and circuses as testaments to Roman military might. With the decline of the Roman empire, many of these obelisks were left untended. They fell, broke into pieces, and were generally lost amidst the slow accumulation of detritus throughout the centuries of the city’s habitation, just as were many other important ancient buildings. (Much of Rome has gained literally dozens of meters over the past few millennia, as foundations were laid on foundations were laid on foundations.)

Piazza Navona Obelisk with Bernini Fountain

Fast forward to the sixteenth century: as the Catholic church sought to excavate ancient Roman splendors and re-purpose them as religious ornamentation, the broken pieces of many obelisks were discovered, put back together, and consecrated to the glory of God–hence the cross on the top of almost every obelisk. Bases for the obelisks were set up with Latin inscriptions explaining the actions (see below for some examples) and recognizing the pope responsible for the project, more often than not Pope Sixtus V (late 16th century) or Pope Pius VI (late 18th century).

The first project for the ICCS study abroad program I am participating in this semester was to track down and discover something about these obelisks. The students in the program were broken down into groups of three or four and assigned two obelisks for finding. In addition to jump-starting our course in Roman history, the exercise was also supposed to be an orientation on using maps and getting around in Rome. (As none of us were great with Italian bus schedules, we just walked everywhere.)

Our “primary” obelisk was that in the Piazza Navona, an elliptical clearing that was once the Circus of Domitian. It was discovered (broken into five pieces) by Pope Innocent X; after fixing it, he raised it there and commissioned Bernini in 1651 to design a fountain for its base. Nowadays, this fountain is the main lure to the site. Although the obelisk itself is adorned with Egyptian hieroglyph, when Champollion translated them in 1822 they were found to be Roman work, as they praised the emperors Domitian, Vespasian, and Titus.

The base had the typical Latin inscriptions indicating the name of the Pope who restored the obelisk and giving a bit of its history. Here is what were able to get from one of the sides:








Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – guess the river god?

“Pontifex Optimus Maximus Innocent the 10th bore over, restored, and erected in the year of our savior 1602 the obelisk carried to Rome by the emperor Antoninus Caracalla after it had lain shattered for a long time among the remains of the camp’s circus.”

An inscription on another side makes reference (incorrectly, apparently) to the “injurious wonder of Egypt,” i.e., the obelisk, and refers to how it was purified for church use. Here are a couple of cool facts about the Bernini fountain that it’s on top of:

  • It’s called the “Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi,” or Fountain of the Four Rivers
  • The four rivers are : the Danube, the Nile, the Ganges, and the Rio de La Plata
  • Four river gods represent the four rivers: the Ganges holds an oar to symbolize its navigability; the Nile’s head is covered, showing that the source of the river was unknown; the Danube touches the papal coat of arms, since it was the largest river close to Rome; the Rio de la Plata sits on a pile of coins, indicating the riches of the Americas

The second obelisk we saw was on the “Monte Pincio,” or the “Pinchian hill.” The hill affords some terrific views of Rome, and is also home to several beautiful villas (including the Villa Borghese) and their gardens. Although this obelisk (a Hadrianic one) was less spectacular than that at Piazza Navona, it was still very impressive. Check out a picture of it and make sure to look at the park (which looks a little bit Dr.Seuss-ish to me), and this large wooden head that was a part of an art exhibit there.

Monte Pincio Obelisk

One thought on “Obelisks in Rome

  1. Pingback: A Tiny Tiny Roman Forum | Crystal King

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