The 25-metre-high granite obelisk that adorns the centre of Piazza San Pietro (St Peter's Square) is the only one of the city's thirteen ancient Egyptian obelisks to have remained standing since the days of antiquity.
The Vatican obelisk has no hieroglyphs, which makes it difficult to determine its exact age. It was brought to Rome by the emperor Caligula (r. 37-41 CE) and set up on the spina of the circus he was building on Mons Vaticanus. Caligula's circus was completed by Nero (r. 54-68) and bore his name Circus Neronianus.
It is believed that, in 64 CE, Peter the Apostle was crucified near the obelisk and his remains buried just outside the Circus. A shrine was built on this site some years later and in 319 work began on the construction of a huge basilica dedicated to St Peter.
For centuries St Peter's Needle, as the obelisk came to be called by pilgrims, stood on the south side of St. Peter's Basilica. It remained standing, when all of the other obelisks either fell or were toppled, because it was revered as a witness to St Peter's crucifixion.
In 1506 work began on the rebuilding of the basilica (which would take more than a century) and eighty years later Pope Sixtus V (r. 1585-90) decided to move the obelisk the short distance to the centre of the piazza. He entrusted the task to the architect and engineer, Domenico Fontana (1543-1607). The obelisk, which is 25 metres high and weighs roughly 330 tons, was erected (with the aid of 900 men, 140 horses and 44 winches) in its new position on September 10th, 1586. At its base sit four bronze lions (each of which has two bodies), whose tails are intertwined.
Since 1817 the obelisk has acted as the gnomon of a large sundial.
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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