Moving the Vatican Obelisk
Friday, May 25, 2007
The epic choreography of moving the Vatican obelisk, as illustrated by Natale Bonifacio for Domenico Fontana's 1590 manuscript Della Trasportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano.
The obelisk was carved during the reign of Nebkaure Amenemhet II (1992-1985 BCE), and originally stood in the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis. The Roman emperor Caligula brought it to Rome in 37 AD as one of many tokens of the Roman conquest of Egypt, and erected the spoil on the spine of his eponymous circus, later renamed for Nero.
A millenium and a half later, in 1585, Pope Sixtus asked Domenico Fontana to move the 330-ton Aswan granite the quarter mile or so to St. Peter's Square. The operation was carried out using hemp ropes and iron bars weighing 40,000 pounds, plus 900 men and 72 horses, and took about 5 months to complete. It was no easy move. Nevertheless, the entire event proved to be a spectacle, captivating the city's populace.
We would be remiss if we didn't briefly mention that the relocation of the obelisk capped the tail end of the slow but inexorable epic reconstruction of the city of Rome by the papacy after the Western Schism.
When the popes returned from their Avignon sojourn, they found the city nearly deserted, a hulking heap of trash, the center having the look of a backwoods country. It looked beggarly; or as Petrarch described the one-time center of the world, “a matron with the dignity of age but her grey locks disheveled, her garments, and her face overspread with the pallor of misery.”
Starting with Nicholas V in the mid-15th century, the popes as master urban planners set about returning the city back to economic prosperity and to pastoral preeminence in Christendom. Old roads were opened up, and new ones built. So were new palaces, churches, and piazzas. Entire neighborhoods were razed down, others cleaned for re-habitation. Monumental schemes were planed, re-planned, and then finally executed. Broad, straight roads swept through the landscape, irrespective of the hilly terrain and existing grid, connecting all the mother churches with each other, to other holy sites and to the city gates.
Pilgrims soon circulated about the urbis as though it were a theater; and for all intents and purposes it was indeed one huge stage, wherein souls were saved or condemned while the church cashed in, watching their coffers bloat from selling indulgences. From one basilica to another basilica, from one severed finger to a decapitated martyr's head to yet another saintly relic, pilgrims traversed the reconfigured urban landscape, praying, chanting, giving offerings, receiving absolution and using the vast store of saintly sculptures and monuments as props.
It was as carefully choreographed as moving the Vatican obelisk.
We would be remiss as well if we didn't briefly note that most art historians seem to like to comment that not only did the obelisk provide the ideal visual anchor and spatial coherence to a large, open public space but, with the mounting of a cross on the summit, this once trophy of Roman imperialism became a trophy of the Catholic church. The triumph of Christianity over paganism, as it were.
Of course, one can only wonder who will make this trophy of a trophy into their own trophy one thousand or so years from now.
Or in a bit of performance art inspired by Busby Berkeley, will Maurizio Cattelan steer through the Baroque avenues of Rome four parade balloons in the exact shape and dimensions as the minarets of Hagia Sophia? With a cast of thousands and the entire zoological content of Bioparco di Roma? It'll be a new Roman triumph, passing through the Arch of Constantinople. The minarets will get stuck and so must be deflated. Cities in Western Europe and Muslim countries will riot.
(Also read about Ramses II's 10-hour journey through the streets of Cairo in this BBC News article. Apparently tens of thousands of people lined the streets to witness the spectacle.)
Della Trasportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano