Rome is home to more obelisks than any other city, a grand total of eighteen, including the world's largest.
The total breaks down into eight ancient Egyptian, five ancient Roman and five modern obelisks.
The ancient Egyptian obelisks:
The 'Lateranense' Obelisk (Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, 32.18 m, c. 330 tons). The Lateranense is the largest obelisk in the world and was the last to be brought to Rome. The obelisk was originally erected by the pharaoh Tuthmosis III (r. 1479-1425 BCE) outside the Temple of Amun in Karnak, where it stood for almost two thousand years. Towards the end of the reign of the emperor Constantine (r. 306-337) it was moved to the port of Alexandria, where it lay on the quay awaiting transport to the city of Constantinople, which the emperor had inaugurated as his new capital in May 330. However, the project was halted by the emperor’s death in 337. At some point before 357 Constantius II (r. 337-361) completed the task, using a specially built ship manned by 300 oarsmen. The obelisk’s destination, however, was now Rome, where it was erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus. In 547 it is thought it was toppled by the Goths. In 1587 it was found broken into three pieces at a depth of 8 m. In the following year it was re-erected by Domenico Fontana in Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano, on the orders of Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-90). The Lateranense, with its very fine hieroglyphs, is one of the most well-preserved obelisks in Rome.
The 'Macuteo' Obelisk (Piazza della Rotonda, 6.34 m). This obelisk once formed a pair with the one in the Villa Celimontana. The two obelisks were first erected by Rameses II (r. 1279-1213 BCE) in Heliopolis and were later brought to Rome where they were erected in the sacred enclosure of the Iseum, the Temple of Isis. On the pyramidion are two cartouches of Ramesses II. The obelisk once lay near the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which was built over the ruins of the Iseum. It was later seen standing near the church of San Macuto in Via del Seminario. Three centuries later, in 1711, Pope Clement XI (r. 1700-21) had it erected in Piazza della Rotonda as part of the fountain.
The 'Matteiano' Obelisk (Villa Celimontana, 2.58 m). The obelisk was first erected in Heliopolis by Ramesses II (r. 1279-1213 BCE). It was moved to Rome where it was placed in the Iseum, the Temple of Isis, which used to stand on the site of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. At the beginning of the 14th century the obelisk was moved to the Capitoline hill. On September 11th, 1582, it was presented by the city fathers to Ciriaco Mattei, a nobleman and collector of antiquities. The obelisk was moved to the garden of Mattei’s villa, the Villa Celimontana, where it remains to this day. Only the upper part of the obelisk is original.
The 'Flaminio' Obelisk (Piazza del Popolo, 23.20 m). This was the first obelisk to be seen in ancient Rome. The obelisk had initially been erected by Rameses II (r. 1279-1213 BCE) in Heliopolis. Following his defeat of Antony and Cleopatra in 31 BCE, the emperor Augustus decided to transport it 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. It was discovered, broken into pieces, in 1587. It was duly repaired and two years later Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-90) had the architect and engineer, Domenico Fontana, set it up in the centre of Piazza del Popolo.
The 'Solare' Obelisk (Piazza del Montecitorio, 21.79 m). It was originally erected by Psammetichus II (r. 595-589 BCE) in Heliopolis. In 10 BCE it was moved to Rome where it became the gnomon of a huge sundial (Horologium Divi Augusti) in the Campus Martius. In 1792 it was unearthed and erected in Piazza del Montecitorio by Pope Pius VI (r. 1775-99), who duly placed his coat of arms on top of the obelisk. He also added a pointer, as a reminder of its use as a sundial.
The 'Minerveo' Obelisk (Piazza della Minerva, 5.47 m). The obelisk was first erected in Sais by the pharaoh Apries (r. 589-570 BCE). Nothing is known about how the obelisk reached Rome, but it seems certain that it was part of the Iseum Campense (Temple of Isis and Serapis).
The obelisk was unearthed in 1665 in the garden of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva during the reign of Pope Alexander VII (r. 1655-67). It was soon decided to set it up in front of the church. Many proposals were submitted for the design of the base, but in the end the decision was made to place the obelisk on an elephant standing on a pedestal. On the pedestal are inscriptions (dictated by Alexander VII) referring to the date of its erection, the pope responsible and an injunction to people admiring the obelisk: ‘Let any beholder of the carved images of the wisdom of Egypt on the obelisk carried by the elephant, the strongest of beasts, realise that it takes a robust mind to carry solid wisdom.’
The 'Vaticano' Obelisk (Piazza di San Pietro, 25.5 m). The origin of this obelisk is unclear. It once stood in the city of Alexandria and was moved to Rome in 40 CE, on the order of the emperor Caligula (r. 37-41), who had it erected on the spina of the Vatican Circus.
It is the only ancient obelisk that has remained standing since it was erected and it was relocated (from the south side of the old basilica) here in 1586 on the order of Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-90). The man who was responsible for moving the obelisk and re-erecting it (a task not undertaken for more than a thousand years) was the architect Domenico Fontana (1543-1607).
The 'Dogali' Obelisk (Via delle Terme di Diocleziano, 5.4 m). The obelisk, which dates back to the reign of Rameses II (r. 1279-1213 BCE) was originally one of a pair from Heliopolis; the other is now in the Boboli Gardens in Florence. It was moved from Heliopolis to Rome, where it stood outside the Temple of Isis. It was unearthed in 1883 by Rodolfo Lanciani near the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. On June 5th, 1887, the obelisk was erected in front of the main railway station to commemorate the Battle of Dogali (January 26th, 1887), in which 548 Italian soldiers were killed by Ethiopian troops. It was moved to its present position in 1924.
The ancient Roman obelisks:
The 'Quirinale' Obelisk (Piazza del Quirinale, 14.64 m). The obelisk once stood outside the Mausoleum of Augustus. In 1786, by order of Pope Pius VI (r. 1775-99), it joined the two statues of the Dioscuri, known as the ‘horse tamers’, which stand outside the Palazzo del Quirinale.
The 'Esquiline' Obelisk (Piazza dell' Esquilino, 14.75 m). In the 16th century the Esquiline and Quirinale obelisks were lying near the ruins of the Mausoleum of Augustus. Although there is no mention of them in the description of the mausoleum when it was built in the first half of the first century CE, they must have been erected at a later date. In 1519 the fragments of the Esquiline obelisk were excavated and moved to a neighbouring street. However it wasn’t until the reign of Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-90) that the obelisk was re-erected. In 1587 the pope had it set up in the piazza in front of the entrance to his villa, which lay behind the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore.
The 'Agonalis' Obelisk (Piazza Navona, 16.54 m). The obelisk was commissioned by the emperor Domitian (r. 81-96), who is named in the hieroglyphs. It stood near the Iseum (Temple of Isis) for two centuries before the emperor Maxentius (r. 306-312) had it moved to the circus he had built on the Via Appia. In 1648 Pope Innocent X (r. 1644-1655) had it moved to Piazza Navona where it became part of the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers). The obelisk is surmounted not by a cross but by a dove bearing a sprig of laurel in its beak, the heraldic symbol of the pope’s family, the Pamphilj.
The 'Sallustiano' Obelisk (Piazza della Trinita dei Monti, 13.91 m). The obelisk arrived in Rome in the third century, but it is not known which emperor commissioned it. What is known is that it was placed in the Horti Sallustiani (Gardens of Sallust), where its foundations can still be seen. The gardens, which covered a large area between the Porta Pinciana and the Porta Salaria, later became part of the Villa Ludovisi.
The hieroglyphs are copies of those on the ancient Egyptian obelisk in Piazza del Popolo. At some point the obelisk fell (or was felled), but it never completely disappeared. In 1735 Pope Clement XII (r. 1730-1740) had it moved to Piazza di San Giovanni, where it lay for the next fifty-five years. It was finally erected, by order of Pope Pius VI (r. 1775-1779), in front of the church of Santissima Trinità dei Monti.
The 'Pinciano' Obelisk (Viale dell' Obelisco, 9.25 m). The obelisk was commissioned by Hadrian (r. 117-38) and erected at his villa in Tivoli for the tomb of Antinous. It was moved to Rome by the Elagabalus (r. 218-22) to decorate the spina of the Circus Varianus. It was unearthed in the 16th century near the Porta Maggiore. It was first moved to the Palazzo Barberini and later to the Vatican. The obelisk was finally erected in 1822 on the Pincian hill by Pope Pius VII (r. 1800-23).
The modern obelisks:
Villa Medici: 19th century copy of an obelisk dating back to the reign of Ramses II (r. 1279-1213 BCE), which now stands in the Boboli Garden, Florence.
Villa Torlonia: Two obelisks created in 1842.
Foro Italico: Obelisk created from Cararra marble and dedicated to Benito Mussolini in 1932.
EUR: In Piazza Guglielmo Marconi stands an obelisk (1959) dedicated to the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), which was erected for the summer Olympics of 1960.
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
Search Walks in Rome: