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Volume 30, Number 2March/April 1979

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A Forest of Obelisks

"Found in...gardens, under the ruins of temples, and else where, they were unearthed, pieced together, and put up all across Rome."

Written by Paul Lunde
Photographed by Harold Sequeira

On the 18th of September, 1585, some 500 engineers and architects from all over Italy, and as far away as Greece, gathered in Rome to demonstrate to a committee - composed of four cardinals, a bishop, a senator and other notables - how they proposed to move and erect an Egyptian obelisk brought to Rome by the Emperor Caligula some 15 centuries before.

The proposed move - from a site just to the left of today's Basilica of Saint Peter's to the center of the piazza - was a daunting challenge. Weighing 330 tons, the obelisk, called the Vatican Obelisk, had repeatedly defeated other Renaissance engineers who considered moving it. Decades before, for example, even the great Michelangelo, reportedly the inventor of a marvelously efficient winch, declined to try. "What," he asked, "if it should break?"

Michelangelo had a point. Like all true obelisks, the Vatican Obelisk, 83 feet long, was a single piece of stone, unlike, for example, the Washington Monument, which is built of separate blocks. Had his winch slipped, therefore, the obelisk would probably have been shattered and Pope Paul III would not have been pleased. Yet now, in 1585, hundreds of engineers, eager for a chance to try the same thing for Pope Sixtus V. put on their demonstrations for the committee.

They were certainly ingenious - advocating, for example, construction of a short canal so that the obelisk could be floated to its site - but they were also canny. One engineer, who knew about cost overruns before the word was coined, prudently refused to give a price and the man who got the job - Domenico Fontana - was the highest bidder. Both were proven right when the final bill came in; it was more than twice the initial estimates.

Domenico Fontana was the Pope's favorite and although the committee had chosen someone else, Fontana got the job. Seven months later, with his heart in his mouth, he began tipping the great shaft onto its side - the first precarious step of the project The Vatican Obelisk, by the time Fontana was moving it, had become part of Roman folklore. The only obelisk in Rome still standing in its original position, it supposedly marked the tomb of St. Peter and reportedly contained, in a bronze globe at the top, the ashes of Julius Caesar. Furthermore, according to folklore, Caesar received the famous letter warning him of the conspiracy against him while standing beside the obelisk.

Folklore had also added local color to the mystery of how the obelisk had been transported to Rome in the first place; one story was that the poet Virgil had moved it by magic. But with respect to obelisks the facts were more fascinating than the folklore.

It is not known just when the Egyptians began to erect obelisks, but by the Fifth Dynasty the incredibly difficult system of quarrying, moving and erecting them was well developed. It involved identification of suitable stone, tests of its composition - made by driving shafts into the quarry - and then the grueling work necessary to cut the obelisk out of the quarry in one piece.

Actually, according to archeologists, the ancient Egyptians may not have cut the obelisks. They first fractured the surface of the stone - by heating bricks and pouring cold water on them - and then pounded the obelisk out of the stone with 10-pound hammers made of a harder stone called dolomite. When free, the great shafts were then levered out -by exerting pressure on trees driven into the fissures pounded out with the hammers. The obelisks were then polished, inscribed, transported to their sites and erected.

Moving and erecting the great obelisks - as Domenico Fontana would discover - were tasks almost as overwhelming as the quarrying. The Egyptians, apparently, dragged the obelisks from the quarry to the Nile on sledges - a monumental job requiring some 6,000 men and, literally, miles of rope. Then they floated them down the Nile on barges, moved them to the sites - presumably by sledge - and erected them.

Surprisingly little is known about how Egyptian engineers erected obelisks. One theory suggests that they dug funnel-shaped holes in the sand, slid the obelisks over the lip of the funnel and down the side - until the bottom of the obelisks came to rest neatly in the neck of the funnel - and then dug away the sand, leaving the obelisks erect. Another theory is that erection involved a series of chambers that were emptied underneath the obelisk until it rested in the required position.

History is vague too on how Caligula re-erected the Vatican Obelisk in Rome. Records show that in pharaonic times it had originally stood in Alexandria, had fallen and had then been re-erected by the Romans during the reign of Augustus. In AD. 37 it was moved by Caligula to Rome and re-erected again in the center of Caligula's private chariot course. To transport it to Italy, Caligula built a vessel of 1,555 tons; the largest ship ever built up to that time, it was later pressed into service by the Emperor Claudius to transport elephants to Britain for Claudius's invasion.

In 1586, when Domenico Fontana began to move the obelisk, Caligula's racetrack had long since disappeared, but the obelisk was still standing in the same place. Signor Fontana's task was to take it down, move it some 280 yards and stand it up again - all without breaking it.

Fontana, of course, had immense advantages over the ancient Egyptians; he had iron tools, winches and pulleys. Still, it took him six months to move the Vatican Obelisk from beside the church to the center of the piazza And this did not include the time spent constructing the scaffolding and clearing the site, operations which took another six months of feverish work. The project also involved the demolition of houses to clear the site, the ordering of immense quantities of hemp rope and required the construction of 40 huge winches.

During the preparations, the interest of Renaissance Rome had been mounting by the day. On D-Day, therefore, officials fenced off the site - to prevent the vociferous Roman populace from interfering-surrounded it with Swiss guards and ordered complete silence. During the same period Fontana, who knew his folklore, ordered his men to detach the bronze globe at the top - to see if it did indeed contain the ashes of Julius Caesar. It didn't, so, on April 30, Fontana finally gave the go-ahead and, to the sound of trumpets, the winches began to turn and the winch-ropes, attached to iron bands riveted to the shaft, began to tighten.

Almost immediately there was a tremendous creak, as the scaffolding groaned under the pressure and one of the iron bands snapped. Fontana sounded a bell - a signal to stop - and inspected both the obelisk and the scaffolding.

Then he replaced the iron band and, after 12 turns of the winches, succeeded in raising the obelisk 24 inches. Elated by this start, Fontana ordered that lunch for his workers - and for 75 horses - be provided. Eight days later the obelisk lay on its side, on a cradle. As this was the most difficult part of the job, Fontana was the hero of the hour and the populace bore him to his house, sounding trumpets and beating drums.

After that the project went swiftly. On a ramp built from the original site to the new site on the piazza - a distance of 841 feet - workers dragged the obelisk into position on rollers. Then, on September 10, with 52 turns of the winch, the obelisk was erected on its original pedestal. By sundown, it was in place and 16 days later - after the site was cleared and the cradle removed - the obelisk stood free. On the 26th of September, almost exactly a year from the time Domenico Fontana was chosen for the job, Sixtus V presided at ceremonies to mark the occasion.

But for Sixtus V, as it turned out, a single obelisk was not enough. Since Fontana had shown that a modern engineer could do what the fabled Egyptians had been able to do, with many fewer men, Sixtus decided to link the seven major basilicas of Rome by broad avenues and, if he could, erect an obelisk in front of each.

His plan, if ambitious, was by no means impossible; the Renaissance Romans had discovered, in the works of Pliny the Elder and others, that ancient Rome had once been a forest of obelisks: six large obelisks and 42 smaller ones had once adorned the city. All but the Vatican Obelisk had long since toppled and vanished, of course, but Sixtus knew that the others must be buried in the ruins of Rome; their size made them almost impossible to remove - even if broken into several pieces - and the stone of which they were made was almost indestructible.

Even before Fontana finished moving the first obelisk, therefore, Sixtus had made tentative plans to assemble the three pieces of another obelisk that had been found, 66 years before, near the Church of San Rocco. And when Fontana succeeded with the first project, Sixtus immediately assigned him to reconstruct the broken obelisk on the Piazza dell'Esquilino. Thus, one by one, Rome's obelisks were disinterred and erected.

Among them was the first obelisk ever to be brought to Rome and the third largest; it had stood in the Circus Maximus and was re-erected in 1589 in the center of the magnificent Piazza del Popolo. There were also the twin obelisks originally put up in Heliopolis by Ramses II and brought to Rome to adorn the Isis Temple, and the obelisk now in the Piazza Montecitorio; imported by Augustus, it was originally set up so its shadow would tell time like an enormous sun-dial. Found in a continuing search of Rome, in gardens, under the ruins of temples, and elsewhere, they were unearthed, pieced together and put up all across the city.

One of the most charming is the obelisk borne on the back of an elephant around the corner from the Pantheon. Erected by the Pharaoh Apries in the city Sais in Egypt, it too once adorned the Temple of Isis. Unearthed in 1665, it was turned over to the famous sculptor Bernini, who designed the elephant which bears the obelisk on its back. Dedicated in 1667, the work bears an inscription to the frivolous: "Oh you who here see transported by an elephant, the strongest of creatures, the hieroglyphs of wise Egypt, take warning: a strong mind is required to sustain solid wisdom."

Another of the more famous obelisks is that which stands at the top of the Spanish Steps. Measuring 45½ feet high, it was probably brought to Rome in the second or third century A.D. It was re-erected on April 20, 1787. Still another is the stunning combination of fountain and obelisk in the Piazza Navona, familiar to anyone who has ever visited Rome. The work of Bernini, the fountain is an allegory of the four continents in which America is depicted by an American Indian recoiling in awe before the stupendous size of the obelisk towering above him.

Each of the obelisks, of course, has a history that runs from pharaonic times through the end of the Renaissance. But some are more interesting than others. Shortly after his first triumph, for example, Fontana was assigned to excavate, move and assemble the pieces of the obelisk of Constantius, one of two that once stood in the Circus Maximus. This obelisk had just been found, by probes, some 23 feet below a garden where farmers were growing cabbages and artichokes on the ancient site of the great Circus Maximus. The farmers, naturally, were annoyed, but Fontana dug it up anyway and in just over a month - on August 10, 1588 - erected it on the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. This is the largest obelisk of them all. It weighs 455 tons and is 105½ feet high. Quarried in Aswan - during the reign of Tuthmosis III - and erected by Tuthmosis IV at Karnak, this obelisk was so big that even the Emperor Augustus, who brought so many other obelisks to Rome, balked at the transportation problem. He left it to stand, as it had for a millennium, in Karnak.

The Emperor Constantine, however, was not so deterred; he wanted it for his new capital at Constantinople. The great moving project, therefore, got underway and the obelisk was on the docks of Alexandria when Constantine died and his son Constantius succeeded him. Constantius continued with the project - although deciding to bring it to Rome instead of Constantinople - and built a gigantic barge on which the obelisk was rowed across the Mediterranean and up the Tiber. Eventually it was brought to the Circus Maximus - already adorned with an obelisk erected by Augustus 367 years before - and, in A.D. 357, erected; it was the last of all the obelisks of Egypt to be brought to the Eternal City.

It was also the first to fall down - or be knocked down - and, like the others, slowly vanish once the Roman Empire had begun to disintegrate, and before the skill of Renaissance engineers like Fontana found a way to restore them to glory.

Paul Lunde is a staff writer for Aramco World.

This article appeared on pages 28-32 of the March/April 1979 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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