Walking Rome’s Obelisks
I did once publish a much shorter version of this for the American Institute for Roman Culture as a Twitter thread. But this long form blog post style allows me to go into much more detail with it. Did you know that Rome has the largest amount of standing obelisks in one city in the world? There are 13, with 8 being Egyptian and 5 being Roman in their construction. The Romans constructed specialist obelisk ships to bring them from Egypt to Rome, and we know of these ships as Pliny the Elder and Ammianus Marcellinus describe them in their texts.
So, if Google Maps is correct in it’s estimation, this walk should take the best part of 3 hours, slightly more if you stop for a hearty Italian lunch and some gelato (and if you’re like me, a Tiramisu too).
Starting at Piazza San Pietro and the Vaticano Obelisk. The obelisk was erected in Alexandria in the Forum Iulium between 30 and 28 BC, so just before Octavian becomes Augustus and kickstarts the Roman empire. It doesn’t stay there for too long though, as Caligula (AD 37-41) moves it to Rome to decorate the spina of his Circus Vaticanus. You’ll notice a trend later with obelisks and circus spinae. The obelisk stands at 25.5m on its own or at 41m with the later base included. It was in 1586 that Pope Sixtus V, with the help of Domenico Fontana, had the obelisk raised in its’ current spot. In the medieval period, it was thought that the sphere on top of the obelisk held the ashes of Julius Caesar, presumably due to it being in the Forum Iulium in Alexandria, but when it was removed and opened, no ashes were found. I’ve always thought that if Octavian had moved Caesar’s ashes to an obelisk, the best one would have been the one used at his Horologium/Solarium, given that it was Caesar that made the calendar changes. However, there was not a sphere on that obelisk. You can find the Vaticano Obelisk sphere in the Capitoline Museums.
If you are facing the obelisk, turn right, head out around the curved colonnade of the Piazza and through the Porta Angelica, head straight north on the Via di Porta Angelica until you reach Piazza Risorgimento, then leave on the road in the north-east corner; Via Cold di Rienzo, following this road, with all it’s big brand shops, until you cross the Tiber on Ponte Regina Margherita. Once on the east bank of the Tiber, you are on Via Fernando di Savoia, where you’ll then reach Piazza del Popolo after a short walk, arriving from behind the Fontana del Nettuno on the western side.
Here is where we reach obelisk number two, the Flaminio obelisk! The Flaminio is just shy of the Vaticano’s height, at 24m (36.50m with base). It was one of the first brought to Rome from Heliopolis by Augustus in 10 BC and decorated the spina of the Circus Maximus (There’s the spina link again, clearly Caligula was copying Augustus). The nineteenth dynasty Pharoah Sety I and his son Ramesses II were the creators of this obelisk in Heliopolis. The obelisk was discovered in 1587 in the Circus Maximus where it had been broken into three pieces, along with the Lateran obelisk, and was moved to the Piazza in 1589 under Sixtus V, again with the help of Domenico Fontana, annoyingly Sixtus destroyed the Severn Septizodium to use the marble for the base. In 1823 Valadier added the lion fountains and basins, to give it more of an Egyptian feel.
Cross the road at the north-east corner of Piazza del Popolo and climb the stairs to reach the Pincian Belvedere, where you can get a better look at the Flaminio in its’ entirety before heading south onto Viale dell’Obelisco and then into Piazza Bucarest to see the Pinciano Obelisk. The Pinciano is our first Roman-era obelisk, having been created on the orders of Hadrian and erected at the Tomb of Antinous at the Villa of Hadrian in Tiovli. It’s one of the smallest obelisks, standing at 9.24m tall, or 17.26m with the base. Elagabalus moved the obelisk to Rome to feature in the spina of the Circus Varianus (see what I mean about a trend?). It was discovered in the 16th Century near Porta Maggiore, though how it moved the short distance from the Circus Varianus, we don’t know, and was then moved around Rome, staying at Palazzo Barberini and the Vatican. It was finally placed on the Pincian by Pope Pius VII in 1822.
Now for a gentle stroll through Villa Borghese, on to and along the Viale della Trinità dei Monti to the second of the Roman Obelisks, the Sallustiano. The Sallustiano is an Aurelian-era (3rd Century AD) smaller copy of the Flaminio that we saw earlier, standing at 13.91m high (30.45 with base). The Sallustiano was made to decorate the Gardens of Sallust, which had been Imperial property, and this is where it gets its’ name. It was found by the Ludovisi in 1734. They moved it to San Giovanni in Laterano, before it was then erected at the current location by Pope Pius VI in 1789.
Head down the Spanish Steps (no sitting now) and you’re in Piazza di Spagna. Before you continue, I recommend going north to the Via della Croce to stop off at Pompi Tiramisu, a Tiramisu in a box to takeaway will cost you €4 and the sugar and coffee will be vital for the next part of the journey across Rome (trust me). Once you have your delicious treat head out and follow the Via della Croce west until you reach Via del Corso, where you then head south, past the Basilica dei Santi Ambrogio e Carlo al Corso, continue following the roads south west (the Via della Fontanella di Borghese – Via del Clementino – then left on to the Via della Scrofa is a good route, you’ll pass a nasoni as you turn left onto the Scrofa for some water).
When you reach Via di Sant’Agostino, you can turn right and head through the Piazza di Sant’Agostino (pop into the church to see some Caravaggio’s if you wish). The excellent, but under-visited Palazzo Altemps in also nearby, though we haven’t got time to see their ancient statue collection now. Continue on to Piazza Navona where you’ll find the Agonalis (or the Pamphilius) Obelisk, erected in the centre of Bernini’s fantastic Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi.
The Agonalis obelisk was created under Domitian for the Temple of Serapis. Maxentius moved it to his Circus on the Via Appia (number 4 or 5 so far to be used in such a way). The hieroglyphs on the obelisk call on the Goddesses of Upper and Lower Egypt to protect Domitian and also make refences to Vespasian and Titus. This really plays into the Egyptianizing element that we know exists with the Flavian dynasty. Bernini erected in the obelisk on his fountain in 1651.
Leave Piazza Navona in the south-east corner on the Via dei Canestrari and head east past Chiesa di Sant’Ivo alla Sapienza following the winding roads until you pass behind the Pantheon (don’t miss the reliefs from the Basilica of Neptune) on the Via della Palombella and reach the Piazza della Minerva outside the Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. Here is where we find our next obelisk, the Minerveo.
The Minerveo stands at 5.47m tall and was brought to Rome from Sais by Diocletian for the Temple of Isis. It had been erected in Sais by the twenty-sixth dynasty Pharoah; Apries. It is one half of an obelisk pair, with the other being in Urbino (don’t worry we’re not walking there).The Minerveo was discovered in 1655 and erected on his elephant base by Bernini in 1667 under direction of Pope Alexander VII. There is a Latin inscription on one side of the pedestal, it reads: “Let any beholder of the carved images of the wisdom of Egypt on the obelisk carried by the elephant, the strongest of beasts, realize that it takes a robust mind to carry solid wisdom”.
There’s only a short walk now to our next obelisk, stroll up the side of the Pantheon into Pizza della Rotonda to see the Macuteo! The Macuteo was one of a pair at the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis, moved to the Temple of Isis in Rome at an unknown date. It stands at 6.34m high (14.52m with base). It was found at San Macuto and erected in Piazza Macuta, before Pope Clement XI moved it to this Piazza in 1711. The fountain beneath it was created by Filippo Barigioni. While you’re here, you may as well stop and admire the greatest building in Rome, the architectural marvel that is the Pantheon!
By now you’ll be pretty hungry, so head down Via dei Pastini and grab some lunch, I like Ristorante Er Faciolaro (one of my favourite restaurants in Rome, thanks to repeated visits while I was working out there). Once you’ve polished off your hearty lunch, turn right out of the restaurant to the end of the road, and then head left onto Via della Guglia, follow this road north and you’ll see our next stop.
In Piazza di Monte Citorio you’ll find the Solare Obelisk, which was brought to Rome in 10 BC by Augustus at the same time as he brought the Flaminio, the Solare served as the gnomon of his Solarium Augusti! It was found in the 16th century but reburied, for unknown reasons, before being re-discovered and erected outside Palazzo Montecitorio in 1792 by Pope Pius VI. Like the Flaminio it was also from Heliopolis and was erected there by Psammetichus II of the Twenty-Sixth dynasty.
Leaving Piazza di Monte Citorio you’ll go through the Piazza Colonna, past the Column of Marcus Aurelius, see if you can spot the Miracle of the Rains section, cross the Via del Corso, and follow the Via dei Sabini – Via dei Crociferi and you’ll reach the Trevi Fountain, skirt the edge, take some photos and throw your coin in (get closer for this part). Once you’re done, head south onto the Via di San Vincenzo and turn left onto Via della Dataria, climb the steps to Piazza del Quirinale where we’ll see the Quirinale Obelisk framed by the Statues of the Dioscuri and their horses.
The Quirinale Obelisk stands at 14.63m tall (28.94 with base), and was created to stand at the eastern flank of the Mausoleum of Augustus, we’ll see its partner soon. It was discovered in 1527, then spent 259 years waiting around, because what do you do with an obelisk? Before it was then erected in Piazza del Quirinale by Pope Pius VI in 1786.
When you’re ready to move on, head north-east on Via del Quirinale until we reach Piazza di San Bernardo and the Fontana dell’Acqua Felice, where we will turn right, cross Piazza della Repubblica and Fontana delle Naiadi to reach the Dogali Obelisk! The Dogali Obelisk stands at 6.34m tall and is one half of a pair.
The other half is the one in Florence at the Boboli Gardens. They were brought to Rome to decorate the Temple of Isis under Domitian, who moved about four obelisks from Egypt for his Iseum. Like with the Flaminio, this obelisk was also erected by Ramesses II in Heliopolis. Rodolfo Lanciani discovered the obelisk in 1883, and it was moved to its present site in 1924 where it commemorates the Battle of Dogali.
This isn’t the nicest area of Rome, so we’re now off to see the last Roman-era obelisk. Turn south (Via del Viminale on to the Via Torino) and head towards Santa Maria Maggiore to see the Esquiline Obelisk!
The Esquiline is the pair of the Quirinale, where it stood at the western flank of Augustus’ Mausoleum. It is 14.73m high (25.53 with base). It was discovered in 1527, and Pope Sixtus V erected it in 1587 behind the Major Papal Basilica.
Before continuing I realise I mentioned gelato in the second paragraph and we haven’t visited a gelateria yet. So head south of Santa Maria on the Via Cavour – Via Panisperna – Via dei Capocci until you reach Piazza degli Zingari and Fatamorgana Gelateria. Fatamorgana is my favourite gelateria in Rome, it’s all vegan friendly and has about 5 gelaterias throughout the city. My 3 flavours of choice are Blueberry Cheesecake, Chocolate Orange, and Sacripante (coffee cream with rum and amaretto). Gelato in hand head back to Santa Maria Maggiore and then follow the Via Merulana all the way to the Archbasilica and Mother of all churches; San Giovanni in Laterano. This is where we find the largest obelisk in Rome (and in the world), the Laternanense.
This obelisk weighed 455 tons and stands at 32.18m high (45.70 with base). It was brought to Alexandria by Constantius II from the Temple of Amun in Karnak. It was then brought from Alexandria to Rome in AD 357 to also decorate the spina of the Circus Maximus (last one I promise). It was found in 3 pieces in 1587, restored and moved to the Lateran by Pope Sixtus V (him again) in 1588, though 4m shorter than original height, to replace the equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The Laternanense currently weighs about 300 tons. So it’s lost 155 tons presumably in the process of being restored at 4m shorter.
To reach our final obelisk, walk along the Via Santo Stefano Rotondo and onto the Caelian Hill, where you’ll reach Villa Celimontana where the Matteiano Obelisk stands. The obelisk stands at 2.68m high (12.23 with base). It is the twin of the Macuteo, from the Temple of Ra at Heliopolis. It was moved to Rome to decorate the Temple of Isis in the Campus Martius (perhaps by Domitian again).
It was then discovered in the 14th century and erected east of Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline. Moved to Villa Celimontana after Michelangelo redesigned the square in the late 16th century. It was then lost again, because somehow that’s possible. The fragments were rediscovered and re-erected in 1820 in the Celimontana. There’s a gross legend that goes with this obelisk; apparently during the process of erecting it in Villa Celimontana, a workman’s arm got trapped between the separate pieces of the obelisk, he had to have the arm amputated and apparently they left the limb between the blocks.
So, there we have it, a walking guide of how to see all of Rome’s obelisks in a day. While this is probably not going to make it on to your school trip itineraries, it is definitely worth a go on a personal trip.
See destination: Imperial Rome City Breaks