St. Peter’s Obelisk

Re-erecting an obelisk

The ancient Egyptian obelisk at the center of St. Peter’s Square, Rome, was placed there in 1586, though it had been brought to Rome much earlier by the Emperor Caligula. Re-erecting the Aswan red granite obelisk—25.5 metres high—took the efforts of 900 men working 44 winches, 140 horses, and 0 aliens.

The pharaoh who ordered the original installation of the obelisk in Heliopolis is unknown, but it was probably erected circa 2500 B.C.. Around 30 B.C. the monolith was moved to the Julian Forum in Alexandria by order of the Emperor Augustus. In 37 A.D., the Emperor Caligula ordered the destruction of that forum and the obelisk shipped to Rome.

It was placed, after a short detour, on the central spina of Caligula’s circus. This later became the Circus of Nero and the presumed site of the martyrdom of Christians, possibly including St. Peter and St. Paul. The obelisk stood in original place—roughly where the sacristy of St. Peter’s is today—for about 1500 years.

In 1585, Pope Sixtus V ordered that the 326 tonne obelisk should be moved about two hundred and fifty metres to its present position—a project which took thirteen months.

A scaffold was first built, by the engineer Domenico Fontana, around the obelisk allowing it to be moved slowly along a wooden roadway. At the construction site, a castello—as can be seen in the image above—was built in order to lift the stone into its final vertical position. The work stretched the capabilities of the time to the maximum, and Fontana directed the effort personally—his orders being transmitted by drums, trumpets, and semaphore.

The familiar colonnaded aspects of the square today were added around the centrally placed obelisk almost a century later by Bernini.

My photo is of a mural in the Vatican museum, presumably based on the engravings by Natale Bonifacio for Domenico Fontana’s 1590 manuscript Della Trasportatione dell’Obelisco Vaticano.

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