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Bill Thayer

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 p370  Obeliscus Vaticanus

Article on pp370‑371 of

Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby):
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome,
London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

Color photos are mine © William P. Thayer except as otherwise indicated.

[image ALT: An obelisk against an urban background, with a long colonnade rather prominent. It is the Vatican Obelisk, in St. Peter's Square, Rome.]

Photo © Carole Roach 2001,
by kind permission.

Obeliscus Vaticanus: * the obelisk from Heliopolis erected by Caligula on the spina of the circus Gai et Neronis (CIL VI.882; Plin. NH XVI.201; XXXVI.74, where the reading is uncertain, cf. BC 1897, 226), and now standing in front of S. Peter's. In the Middle Ages it was called the tomb of Julius Caesar, whose ashes were supposed to be contained in a gilt ball on its top, now in the Museo dei Conservatori (Mirabilia 20;  p371 Jord. II.429, 625; JRS 1919, 43, 56; Cons. 171; Bullar. Vatican. I.25 (a.1023 Leo IX); Urlichs 228). It is a monolith of red granite, without hieroglyphs, 25.36 metres in height (cf. Not. Brev. and Jord. II.187), and was moved from its ancient to its present site by Fontana, at the command of Sixtus V (LS IV.144‑147; LR 554, and literature cited, for removal1), having stood erect from the time when it was brought to the city (HJ 657; BC 1897, 225‑227 = Ob. Eg. 149‑151). The vessel which brought it was used as the nucleus of the central breakwater on which the pharos stood (Suet. Claud. 20) or the left-hand breakwater (Plin. NH XVI.76; XXXVI.4) of the Claudian harbour of Portus Augusti (Porto) (NS 1907, 734‑740).a The mediaeval church of S. Stefanus de Agulia took its name from itb (HCh 472).

The Authors' Note:

1 The story that, when the obelisk was raised the silence was broken by a sailor named Bresca, from San Remo, who shouted "acqua alle funi," appears in a new form in Rawlinson's Diary, vol. I, 7 Dec. 1720 (Bodleian MS. Rawl. D. 1180, p163), 'the great obelisk of which is told this story, that when it was raising, the ropes fell too short, and so great was the fear of falling that silence was commanded on pain of death, but an English sailor present bid them wet the ropes, which then lengthened and the work was finished, but instead of a reward, the sailor had only his life given him, forfeited by his transgression of the command.' (Ficoroni, Roma Moderna, 19; cf. Hülsen in Byz. Neugr. Jahrb. II.453‑460; and Roma I. (1923), pp412‑418, who points out that the story really belongs to the obelisk at Constantinople and is taken from the relief on its base.)

[image ALT: A fresco showing a confused scene with hundreds of people on foot and on horseback milling around a very large wooden structure. It is a representation of the raising of the Vatican obelisk, in a fresco in the Vatican Library.]

The raising of the Vatican obelisk, in a fresco in the Vatican Library.

Thayer's Notes:

a The vessel which brought it was used as the nucleus of a breakwater: This is the first recorded instance, to my knowledge, of a technique that helped the Allies win World War II, often seen credited to Churchill. In the landing of June 6, 1944, transport ships were scuttled off the shores of Normandy to create similar breakwaters.

Here at any rate is how Antonio Danti imagined the arrival of Caligula's obelisk at Portus in his fresco in the Map Gallery at the Vatican; since Danti painted it between 1580 and 1583 and preparations were already underway to set the obelisk up in St. Peter's Square, it's safe to see this as of topical interest:

[image ALT: A fresco of two ships carrying a large rectangular block of stone; in the background a breakwater with two lighthouses. It is a fresco in the Vatican Library representating the port of ancient Rome, Portus, and the arrival from Egypt of what would become the Vatican obelisk.]
Vatican, Galleria delle Carte Geografiche: Portus (detail).
See also this more nearly complete view of the entire fresco of Portus.

For the raising of the obelisk, of September 10, 1586, there are many accounts, some more dramatic than others. A rather dry and straightforward account, giving the forces and cost involved, is found in Titi's famous guidebook (1763 edition, as revised by Giovanni Bottari, p2).

b The mediaeval church of S. Stefanus de Agulia took its name from it: This will require some explanation for those with no Latin! Agulia would derive from a Latin word *Aculia — origin of Italian guglia, French aiguille, and Spanish aguja — ultimately from classical Latin acus, a needle.

Hülsen's edition of the Torino Catalogue of the Churches of Rome (early 14c) lists Ecclesia sancti Stephani de Agulia as #116.

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Page updated: 5 Dec 11