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Moving the Vatican Obelisk
Domenico Fontana, Della Trasportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano, 1590

The epic choreography of moving the Vatican obelisk, as illustrated by Natale Bonifacio for Domenico Fontana's 1590 manuscript Della Trasportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano.

Domenico Fontana, Della Trasportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano, 1590

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.

Domenico Fontana, Della Trasportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano, 1590

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.

Domenico Fontana, Della Trasportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano, 1590

Domenico Fontana, Della Trasportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano, 1590

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.

Domenico Fontana, Della Trasportatione dell'Obelisco Vaticano, 1590

(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

12 COMMENTS —
  • autoautistic
  • May 25, 2007 at 10:20:00 AM CDT
  • Um... if it took 900 men and 72 horses 5 months to move this thing a mile, how did an epileptic emporer, 1500 years earlier, move it all the way from Egypt?

    If someone writes me back and says 'aliens' I'm going to be very disappointed.


  • Alexander Trevi
  • May 25, 2007 at 11:00:00 AM CDT
  • Hey autoautistic,

    The "900 men and 72 horses" figure is what it took to erect the obelisk on the piazza. Not sure how many were involved in the actual moving, or in its descent from the circus. Moreover, some sources say the move took a year to complete, but again, how much was spent (in both figures) on planning, scaffold works and site preparation, I'm not quite sure either.


  • autoautistic
  • May 25, 2007 at 12:35:00 PM CDT
  • Great answer! It's heartening to realize that things haven't changed in millenia-- most of the time is always spent in planning, and putting something back together is always slower than taking it down. It would be interesting to calculate those man-hours into current capital and figure out what the Vatican could do as a contemporary statement-- perhaps flying thousands of statues of the virgin, dangling from helicopters, throughout Rome?


  • AM Putra
  • May 25, 2007 at 9:37:00 PM CDT
  • Well, moving the obelisk is something spectacular at that time, and even attracting people. But what more interesting, in my thought, is how the re-placing the obelisk: how they established the obelisk on the new site, the foundation, I'm sure it also a hard job at that time.


  • pk
  • May 27, 2007 at 3:09:00 AM CDT
  • It's a great story indeed. Did you see the comment about the rope burn? I've never gone further into the details.
    (nice job on the images Alexander - they were cows of things to see without brightening/balancing)


  • Verity
  • February 1, 2008 at 7:07:00 PM CST
  • A very interesting mostly factual post spoiled by the subjective attack on the Church.

    Verity


  • Anonymous
  • August 9, 2008 at 5:32:00 AM CDT
  • according to pliny the elder*, it took 20,000 slaves to move/lift the obelisk to its base. pliny's natural history [specifically the thirty-sixth book] describes how the egyptians moved such obelisks.

    *an ancient author, naturalist or natural philosopher and naval and military commander


  • Anonymous
  • September 22, 2008 at 9:44:00 AM CDT
  • search for all obelisks in city centres of the world and you all will know who direct our way of living today.

    SB08


  • Anonymous
  • May 1, 2009 at 7:28:00 PM CDT
  • The triumph of christianity over paganism! You have to be kidding me!
    You have so-callled pagan symbo, sitting right in the center of the citadel of christian hierarchy, and you call that that being triumpant. It seems tome it's the other way around.

    I think it's pagan behavior for the vatican to keep something that was stolen in the first place. The vatican should give it back! White people never seems to amaze me. The relishing of stolen culture as if it was you own is not very good christian behavior. You cannot continue to use transparent and convoluted scheming to justify misdeeds in the name of civilization (sic). The victims are no longer impressed. Give back the obelisk you goddamn thieves!


  • Alexander Trevi
  • May 1, 2009 at 8:20:00 PM CDT
  • Whether it was this way around or that way around or that twirly-twirly round-a-round is a peripheral matter at best. The popes were showmen and masters at propaganda, and they knew what they had in these pre-Christian artifacts. They appropriated them for their agenda, which included highlighting the supremacy of Christianity over all. That many art historians consider the repurposed obelisks as visual manifestations of certain religious and political points of view doesn't mean that Christianity had actually triumphed over non-Christians. To the art historian in this case, motivation is of a greater concern. It's like saying that a statue of Augustus shows the Roman emperor to be a god not because he actually was a god but because he thought of himself as one or, realizing that he wasn't, nevertheless wanted to disseminate this image of himself to the masses using contemporary visual tools of propaganda.

    In any case, I thought I was clear in the paragraph that I was talking about interpretative trajectories, not historical facts. Perhaps not.


  • Anonymous
  • January 1, 2012 at 7:00:00 PM CST
  • we do like our trophys, don't we?


  • Glenn Ashton
  • November 8, 2013 at 5:35:00 PM CST
  • Thanks for the article and the images!


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