At the center of the St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City you can see a 40 meter high Egyptian obelisk. This obelisk, also called memorial needle or Obelisco Piazza San Pietro Città del Vaticano, was placed on the square around 1586 by order of Pope Sixtus V and has an eventful history.
There are several obelisks from Egypt you can visit in Rome, but the one at the St. Peter’s Square is the only ancient obelisk in the city that has survived since ancient times. The column at the St. Peter’s Square originally stood in Heliopolis, Egypt, where it was built as a tribute to the sun by order of an unknown pharaoh. In 30 BC the obelisk was moved by the Roman prefect Gaius Cornelius Gallus to the Forum Julius in Alexandria, which was specially built in honor of Emperor Augustus.
In 37 AD, Emperor Caligula had the obelisk moved to Rome. For this purpose a special ship was built so that the obelisk could be transported to Rome. The obelisk in St. Peter’s Square is said to be the only obelisk in Rome to be transported to the Italian capital in one piece. It probably wasn’t really easy to bring the 372-ton obelisk by sea to Italy, but it succeeded in the end.
Circus of Nero
When the column arrived on the Italian mainland, it was placed in the Circus of Caligura, the later Circus of Nero in Rome. The antique chariot racing stadium was also known as the Circus of Caligula, named after the emperor who built the stadium, and Circus Caticanus because it was built on Vatican Hill. Where St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica now stand, part of Nero’s circus used to stand. The ancient stadium in the center of Rome had a length of over 560 meters and a width of 80 meters and was located at the place where you nowadays can find the St. Peter’s Square.
Emperor Caligura dedicated the obelisk to his predecessors Augustus and Tiberius. Caligula had inscriptions in honor of Augustus and Tiberius on two sides of the obelisk. These inscriptions are still visible today.
Relocation to St. Peter’s Square
In 315 AD, Emperor Constantine began construction of the first St. Peter’s Church over the Peter’s tomb, right next to where the obelisk was placed by Emperor Caligura. The obelisk remained there until the 16th century. In 1586, Pope Sixtus V had the obelisk moved from the Circus of Nero to the newly constructed St. Peter’s Square, but without Bernini’s colonnade. The obelisk had to bridge a total of 300 meters during this move. A job that Michelangelo did not like, but the architect Domenico Fontana dared to move the obelisk.
First, a solid foundation was laid in the middle of St. Peter’s Square on which the obelisk could stand for centuries. This process took more than a month. Then, on April 30, 1586, the real work of the move began. More than 900 people, 75 horses and 40 winches were used to move the 372-ton obelisk 300 meters by means of wooden rollers to its new location on the square. The relocation job took 5 months in total and in September 1586 the obelisk was finally in its new location in the middle of St.
The ashes of Julius Ceasar
Originally there was a copper sphere on the memorial needle. According to medieval legend, it contains the ashes of Julius Caesar. The sphere was replaced by a cross when the obelisk was moved to St. Peter’s Square. The sphere is exhibited today in the Capitoline Museums (Musei Capitolini).
The Egyptian obelisk appears to be carried by four bronze lions, which together with the star and three hills in the decoration are symbols of the coat of arms of Sixtus V. In 1743 eagles were placed at the base of the obelisk by order of Pope Innocent XIII. . Since 1817, the obelisk in the square has also served as a sundial. To this end, a granite band has been placed in the square to the north of the obelisk. During noon, the shadow falls over it. There are also marble stones in the floor around the obelisk that indicate the directions of the compass.
Fountains next to the obelisk
To the left and right of the obelisk at the St. Peter’s Square you can see two seventeenth-century fountains. The special thing about these fountains is the fact that they are identical in appearance, but not designed and built at the same time. The first fountain dates from the year 1612 and was designed by the Swiss architect Carlo Maderno. This architect is responsible for a large number of buildings in Rome and has also designed the Palazzo Barberini, the Santa Susanna church and the Basilica di Santa Maria delle Vittoria, among others. Because the construction of the fountain ruined the symmetry of St. Peter’s Square, a second fountain was placed on the other side of the obelisk in 1675. This fountain was built by Bernini and is an exact copy of the first fountain.