There are many, beautiful obelisks of Rome. They are almost part of the “natural landscape” of the city; and you will find them popping up in the most beautiful piazzas in Rome; in front of Rome churches; held by some of the most impressive statues in the Eternal City.
Obelisks contribute to explain the role that Rome held in the past, and how it dominated much of the known world. So for example, some of the most famous ones come from Egypt, where the Romans took them. Others date back to more recent era and are a bit more controversial – such is the case of the obelisk in the Foro Italico, which dates back to the Fascist era.
Either way, if you are visiting the Italian capital, you will come across some obelisks. I have selected the ones you should make a point to spot and admire.
The Most Famous Obelisks Of Rome
Ancient Egyptian obelisks of Rome
The Dogali Obelisk (2.7 meters; 8.8 feet) was actually originally one of a pair from Heliopolis, once an ancient city in its own right but now a suburb of modern-day Cairo. They were brought to Rome by Emperor Domitian in the late 1st century AD. Dogali’s twin can be found at Boboli Garden, Florence.
It was originally found toppled in 1833 at the long-lost Temple of Isis and moved close to Termini Station. It was named to commemorate the 1837 Battle of Dogali in Ethiopia in which Italy lost around 500 soldiers whose names are inscribed on the base. In 1924, this obelisk was moved to the Baths of Diocletian where it still stands today.
Located in Piazza del Popolo, the Flaminio Obelisk stands at an impressive 27 meters (88.5 feet) tall in the center of the square. Its history stretches back a long way to the 19th dynasty pharaoh Sety I who was thought to have reigned around 1294 BC.
Also from Heliopolis, the Flaminio Obelisk was moved from its original site to Rome at the command of Emperor Augustus, and it was placed in the Circus Maximus. Along with the Lateranense Obelisk (below), it was re-discovered in 1587. It was then re-erected in its present-day location on the orders of Pope Sixtus V. Additions, in the form of basins and Egyptian-style lions, were made in 1823 by Giuseppe Valadier.
At 32.18 meters (105.5 feet) tall, and (originally) weighing 455 tons, the Lateranense Obelisk is not only the tallest in Rome, but also the largest of its kind anywhere in the world. It must have been an epic undertaking to move it from the Temple of Amun, Karnak, to Alexandria and then even more of a tricky task to transport it to Rome in 357.
It was supposed to have been re-erected in Constantinople by Emperor Constantine, but it remained in Egypt for 25 years until it was finally moved to the Circus Maximus close to where the Flaminio Obelisk had already stood for centuries. In 1587, it was restored and put in Piazza di San Giovanni – four meters shorter than it had been and now weighing only 330 tons.
Make sure to read my post A Guide To St. John In The Lateran.
Another of Rome’s obelisks that was originally part of a pair – along with Matteiano (below) – the Macuteo Obelisk (6.34 meters; 20.8 feet) started life at the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis having been commissioned for Ramses II (1279-1213 BC).
After finding its way to Rome, it stood at the Temple of Isis for centuries before falling into ruin. It was re-found in 1373 and erected on the Capitoline Hill. However, it wasn’t until 1711 that Pope Clement XI moved the Macuteo Obelisk once again putting it atop of the Fountain of the Pantheon where it can still be seen to this day. It is now decorated with a symbolic star, Clement’s insignia.
The twin of the Macuteo Obelisk above, the Matteiano Obelisk was moved from in tandem with its stony sibling. Namely, from the Temple of Ra to the Temple of Isis in Rome, then in the 14th century, to the Capitoline Hill. However, it didn’t stay at its new home for very long (not relative to its ancient lifespan, anyway).
It was then moved to the Villa Celimontana on the Caelian Hill following Michaelangelo’s redesign of the stately home in the 16th century. Unfortunately, it was lost once again, with fragments of what now remains of the Matteiano Obelisk erected in the same place in 1820. Today, at 2.68 meters (8.8 feet) tall, it is the smallest obelisk in Rome.
The Minerveo Obelisk was first constructed at Sais, a town on the Nile Delta, by Wahibre Ibiau, a 13th Dynasty pharaoh who reigned for 10 years from 1670 BC. It was thought to have been brought to Rome by Emperor Diocletian in the 1st century AD and erected at the Temple of Isis, but this isn’t certain.
However, it was discovered at the site of the former Temple of Isis in 1565. A century after its re-discovery it was used in one of Bernini’s masterpieces, Elephant and Obelisk, which was commissioned in 1667 by Pope Alexander VII. It’s there, in the Piazza della Minerva, that this obelisk still stands. It’s also one of the smallest obelisks of Rome (5.47 meters; 17.9 feet).
Also known as the Obelisk of Montecitorio, this red granite obelisk was constructed in Heliopolis in honor of the Pharaoh Psammetichus II who reigned from 595 to 589 BC. The obelisk was brought to Rome in 10 BC by Augustus and was actually erected as part of a gigantic sundial in the Solarium Augusti. Its shadow was specially designed to fall on September 23, Augustus’ birthday.
Sadly, it’s thought that an earthquake sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries caused the Solare Obelisk to collapse. It remained buried until 1502 when Pope Sixtus V attempted to repair and reassemble the obelisk.
It wasn’t until the late 18th century that architect Giovanni Antinori was tasked with restoring the obelisk. He did so using granite from an ancient Roman column. You can find it in Piazza Montecitorio. It’s 21.79 meters (71.48 feet) tall.
This iconic obelisk is today found at the center of St Peter’s Square (hence the name). Of course, like many other obelisks of Rome, this one started its life in Ancient Egypt, but it was actually commissioned on the orders of Augustus between 30 and 28 BC in Heliopolis.
However, it was Emperor Caligula who had it transported to Rome in 40 AD where he had it erected in the Vatican Circus. That is where it stands to this day. It’s the only ancient obelisk that has not fallen and remains in place since the Roman era.
Fun fact: there was once a metal ball atop the Vaticano that was rumored to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar. That ball is now in a museum, but it was discovered that only dust was inside, not human remains.
Obelisk of Axum
Not all ancient obelisks in Rome are Egyptian in style. The Obelisk of Axum was, in fact, from Ethiopia and was probably carved in the 4th century AD in the Kingdom of Axum. It was taken from Axum in the Tigray region of Ethiopia by the occupying Italian army in 1937. The 24-meter-tall (78.7 feet) obelisk was then placed in the Piazza di Porta Capena.
Sadly, in 2002 the obelisk was struck by lightning. After the Italian government restored it, it was dismantled and returned to its place of origin in Ethiopia, where it remains.
Roman era obelisks of Rome
The Agonalis Obelisk stands in the Piazza Navona and is therefore one of the most well-known obelisks in Rome. At 16.53 meters (54.2 feet) tall, it sits atop a sculpted pedestal and is a landmark where people like to meet.
It was commissioned by Domitian in the 1st century AD, and though not made in Egypt itself, it was made from red granite sourced from the Upper Nile. Its original position was a temple in Rome dedicated to the Greco-Egyptian god Serapis. It was then moved to the Circus Maxentius in the early 300s.
When the Earl of Arundel tried to have the Roman obelisk shipped to London, Pope Urban VIII intervened and instead commissioned Bernini to create a fountain using the Agonalis Obelisk in 1651. It still forms part of the Fountain of the Four Rivers to this day.
Located today by the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore, the Esquiline Obelisk (14.75 meters; 48.4 feet) – along with the Quirinale Obelisk – was originally placed flanking the Mausoleum of Augustus. Both were thought to have been quarried by the Romans themselves in the late 1st century AD.
They fell into disrepair when the area was flooded by the Tiber. The Esquiline Obelisk was discovered in 1527 during works on the Via di Ripetta, a street in the historic center of Rome. It was re-erected in 1587 in its present location on the orders of Pope Sixtus V.
The Pinciano Obelisk was commissioned by Emperor Hadrian who ruled between 117 to 138 AD. The 9.24-meter-tall (that’s 30.3 feet) obelisk was originally erected in Tivoli for the Tomb of Antinous (who was a favorite of Hadrian).
It later made its way to Rome at the command of Emperor Elagabalus, a teenage emperor who ruled from 218 to 222, to serve as a decoration for the Circus Varinus. It was discovered in the 16th century, close to the Porta Maggiore, and was relocated to the Palazzo Barberini.
That’s not where it stayed. Pope Clement XIV moved the Pinciano Obelisk to the Vatican in the late 18th century. Then finally it was erected on the Pincian Hill by Pope Pius VII in 1822.
Originally quarried in Egypt in the late 1st century AD, the Quirinale Obelisk (14.64 meters; 48 feet) was the sibling obelisk to the Esquiline both of which flanked the entrance to the Tomb of Augustus in Rome. It was discovered in fragmented pieces in 1781.
After a period of restoration, the obelisk was erected in 1786 by Pope Pius VI on the Quirinal Hill, where it joined the “Horse Tamers” – a pair of ancient marble statues that came from the Baths of Constantine.
The Sallustiano Obelisk (13.91 meters; 45.6 feet) is actually a copy of the Flaminio Obelisk that now stands in the Piazza del Popolo commissioned by Emperor Aurelian who ruled from 270 to 275 AD.
After it was found by the noble Ludovisi family, it was transported to the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano in 1734, but it was strangely kept on its side! It was moved to its current location at the top of the Spanish Steps in 1789 by Pope Pius VI.
Modern day obelisks of Rome
One of the more modern and controversial obelisks of Rome, both in terms of age and design, is located at the Foro Italico. The Foro Italico is a sports complex situated on the slopes of Monte Mario.
The obelisk is known as “Stele Mussolini”. It was built in 1932 and carved from Carrara marble. It stands at 17.5 meters (57.4 feet) tall with “MUSSOLINI DUX” inscribed from top to bottom. Discovered at its base, along with gold coins, was a parchment with a Latin language “eulogy” of fascism written on it.
Probably the most modern obelisk, the Marconi Obelisk was dedicated to politician, physicist, and inventor Guglielmo Marconi (if you didn’t know, he was famous for inventing the radio).
The obelisk was designed by Italian sculptor and painter Arturo Dazzi in 1939. Created out of reinforced concrete and covered with slabs of engraved Carrara marble, the obelisk stands at 45 meters (147.6 feet) tall.
World War II put things on hold, and it wasn’t until 1951 that work resumed. It was unveiled where it stands in the EUR district in 1959 ahead of the 1960 Rome Olympics.
The origins of the obelisk that can be found at the Villa Medici is a twisting tale. The first obelisk in the gardens was actually an ancient Egyptian obelisk which stood here until 1790 when it was transferred to Boboli Gardens, Florence.
The 19th-century replica of that ancient obelisk was thought to be ordered by the French Academy who occupied the villa at that time. It’s a faithfully reproduced replica of the Ramses II-era obelisk with well-crafted hieroglyphs and also constructed of the same red granite.
In the Villa Torlonia there are not just one but two obelisks to be found in the grounds. Don’t be fooled, however – they are modern obelisks created in 1842 out of pink Baveno granite. They are engraved with imitated hieroglyphs.
The architect in charge was Giuseppe Valadier (who also made the additions to the Flaminio Obelisk as I mentioned earlier). They were commissioned by Prince Alessandro Torlonia to commemorate his parents, Giovanni Reimundo and Anna Maria Schulteiss.
Planning a trip to Rome? Make sure to check out these other posts: