Rome has more obelisks than any city in the world – 13. The ancient Romans, anxious to represent themselves as the greatest empire the world had ever seen, “liberated” at least eight Egyptian obelisks during their conquest of that land. These obelisks represented the power of Egypt, and thus they would now represent the even greater power of Rome. Who but the most powerful could take these stones from a great kingdom, transport them across the ocean, and then resurrect them in their own city? This is in the same vein as the Romans appropriate Greek architecture. Later, the Romans made their own obelisks as well, five of which still stand.
The history of the obelisks shows their adaptability and great power over the minds of humans. Built originally for supplication of Egyptian gods, the Romans used them as evidence of their greatness – essentially trophies in many cases. But they also told stories. To the lower classes, they represented the surety of grain. Egypt supplied much of Rome’s grain, and if the government was able to ship these stones across the water, then food could be counted on. Some of the obelisks were seen as allegories to upper class Romans, who understood the classical illusions of their use at the seats of power.
Later they were made Christian symbols by the additions of Crosses at the top – to me a humorous attempt at appropriating what is so clearly a pagan object.
Finally they were used by various shapers of Rome’s urban character – primarily the Popes – to punctuate piazzas as well as to become landmark points in space in an otherwise cluttered city. It helped too that the obelisks were handy in conjuring the grandeur of ancient Rome in order to reinforce the notion that Rome was still the seat of temporal and spiritual power.
All this was done with stones whose actual physical properties never changed over thousands of years.
These obelisks are technical marvels. They were transported, hoisted into upright position and leveled so that they haven’t fallen in recent centuries (although all but one have fallen at least once – the one now in St. Peter’s Square never fell, although it was moved. It is shown at top). All this without “modern” technology. As an aside, this shows what can be done in a low carbon world. But we should never use slaves as a cheap energy source, as did the ancient Romans, nor impoverished peasants, as did the Popes.
For me the most interesting aspect of the obelisks is their use in tying the city together. Pope Sixtus V was instrumental in envisioning a more orderly city arising from the tangle of medieval Rome. While for me, medieval Rome is Rome at its most charming, for the leader of the Christian world it was a disaster. Order had to be imposed so that the city could make sense to the largest number of people, and in the shortest time, possible. In doing so, Sixtus V influenced the design of every great world city over the last 500 years.
To achieve his vision, he widened and created new roads and at the focal points of these roads he placed obelisks. These obelisks are dynamic in their ability to draw one’s eye toward them. By doing so, they impel one to move toward them was well. The Quirnal Obelisk, for example, is offset in its plaza, which means it 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 from one point a person can see another in the distance. This is evident from the obelisk at Trinità dei Monti above the Spanish Steps, where one 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; essentially wayfinding for the masses who might not speak the local language. Thus, a confused pilgrim would be able to find his way to a particular church of pilgrimage if he could only spot an obelisk.
The image below illustrates both concepts. From the area labeled “4 Fountains” one can see three obelisks. The four fountains were commissioned by Sixtus V as an inducement to draw urban development out of the core of the old city toward the Church of S. Maria Maggiore.
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.
From a strictly urban design point of view, these obelisks perfectly punctuate the spaces where they reside. They create a gathering spot, add texture and interest, and offer something of the poetry which makes parts of Rome so irresistible.
Below are four of my favorite examples of obelisks in Roman urban design. They are listed from oldest to youngest.
Above is the obelisk Macuteo in Piazza della Rotunda, in front of the Pantheon. This is a perfect urban space: human scale, active, varied yet harmonious, well contained, with the obelisk at the center. The obelisk was created around 3,200 years ago in Egypt during the reign of Ramses II and brought to Rome sometime before the year 100. This obelisk was placed in its present spot in 1711 atop a fountain by Barigioni.
Above is the obelisk Solare, located in the Piazza di Montecitorio. It was created in Egypt sometime between 595 BC – 589 BC and brought to Rome in 10BC. It was erected in its current location in 1792. (The year Kentucky became a state in the U.S.)
Compare the lack of life in this place with the one above. This square fronts the chamber of deputies and thus is much more reserved.
Above is the obelisk Agonalis in the Piazza Novona. This was a Roman copy of an Egyptian work, created sometime between the years 81-96. It stood in the Circus of Maxentius until it was removed and stored for hundreds of years. It was placed in the piazza above Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in 1651.
Piazza Navona is a beautiful and evocative place, but it feels too regularized for me. There is not the variety in roofline or façade articulation, nor the fine-grained mix of building uses use that makes Piazza della Rotunda so appealing. That square is a crossroads in the heart of the city, too, which gives it a charming bustle. Piazza Navona, on the other hand, is a destination, which lends itself more to sedate strolling.
Above is the obelisk Sallustiano, located above the Spanish Steps. It was created between the years 270 to 275 and moved to its present location in 1789. As the backdrop for the Spanish Steps, it may be the most photographed obelisk in Rome, and thus the most well known.
A great overview of the obelisks in Rome can be found here.