The ancient Egyptian obelisk (23.20 m), which graces the centre of Piazza del Popolo, was originally erected by the pharaoh Rameses II (r. 1279-1213 BCE) in Heliopolis.
Following his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE, the emperor Augustus decided to transport the obelisk, one of the spoils of war, to Rome. It arrived in 10 BCE and was placed on the spina, in the centre of the Circus Maximus, where it remained until it was toppled, possibly by the Goths, in 547.
The obelisk, broken into several pieces, was unearthed in 1587. It was duly repaired and two years later Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-90) had the architect and engineer, Domenico Fontana (1543-1607), set it up in the centre of Piazza del Popolo.
One of the Latin inscriptions on the base (south face) dates back to when the obelisk was erected in the Circus Maximus and declares (in translation): 'The Emperor Augustus, son of the Divine Caesar, Pontifex Maximus, acclaimed emperor for the twelfth time, and Consul for the eleventh, vested with the power of the Tribune for the fourteenth, upon the subjection of Egypt to the power of the Roman people, gave this as a gift to the sun.'
Pope Sixtus V added two more inscriptions. The longer inscription (west face) proclaims: 'Sixtus V, Pontifex Maximus, bade this obelisk (consecrated in the Circus Maximus by Caesar Augustus, in unholy rite to the sun, broken and buried in pitiable ruin) to be dug out, moved and restored to its beauty, and dedicated to the Cross most invincible in the year 1589, the fourth of his pontificate.'
The shorter inscription (east face) reads: 'More august I rise, and more joyous, before the sacred shrine of she from whose virgin womb, during the reign of Augustus arose the Sun of Righteousness'.
Blogging about Rome,
its art, history and culture.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
small-group walking tours
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