The Obelisk of Antinous in the renaissance

I have been reading about the obelisk of Antinous, which today stands on the Pincian Hill in Rome.  But it was not erected there in antiquity, but in some other location.

In the 16th century, the obelisk was discovered in the ruins of the Circus Varianus.  This monument may be unfamiliar to most people – indeed it was to me!  It stands in North East Rome, next to the ruins of the Sessorian Palace, and the Amphitheatrum Castrense.

Claudia Paterna’s article on the Circus Varianus tells us:[1]

The remains of the circus outside the walls, and the obelisk, knocked down and broken by Totila’s Goths in 547 AD, remained visible until at least the mid-sixteenth century, as evidenced by studies and reconstructive maps, and place names such as “Circus” (and Cierchio and Cerchio) “Vetere” and “the Girolo”, attested in this century and in the next[10]. In 1570, the Saccoccia brothers, owners of the vineyard where the obelisk lay, conceived a project to restore the monument, and set up a plaque that, since the project was never realized, was placed in 1589 on a pylon of the Aqueduct Felice, where it still is.

In the seventeenth century,[11] the remains of the circus and the fragments of the obelisk had been obliterated even in the area outside the walls, but the obelisk was recovered and purchased in 1633 by Cardinal Francesco Barberini, who had it transported to the courtyard of the Palazzo Barberini at Quattro Fontane, with the intention to erect it in the palace garden, originally designed by Bernini, then Carlo Fontana. The project was never realized, and the obelisk was donated in 1773 by Cornelia Barberini to Pope Clement XIV, who had it transferred in the courtyard of the Pine Cone in the Vatican, with the intention to have it erected on the base of the column of Antoninus Pius, also moved into the courtyard. …


I’d like to see the source that says that how the obelisk was discovered.  Sadly the referencing is not very useful for this.  But it does refer to 17th century writer F. Nardini, Roma antica, a cura di A. Nibby, Roma, 1818 (1st ed. Roma, 1666), tomo II, p. 18.  This is the Nibby re-edition, online here; for those looking at the 1st edition, it is book IV, chapter 2.

Here is what he says.  I had trouble with the Italian, but the key bits are clear enough.

So also says Donati and adds another authority, that of Lampridius ch. 14 “Inde itum est in hortos, ubi Varius invenitur certamen aurigandi parans”; and he argues that this demonstrates that the circus must be ?, not the gardens elsewhere, near the Porta Maggiore, where a circus has remained almost to our own times. Fulvio agrees, who gives notice of the same circus, and the obelisk, which, broken into two parts lying in the middle, he relates from Ligorio in his Book of Circuses, Amphitheatres and Theatres, showing the remains of much magnificence, and representing the obelisk as very nice and decorated with hieroglyphs. Today, only the site may be seen at the amphitheater Castrense in the narrow part of a little valley outside the city walls, … The obelisk lies broken in the couurtyard of the Palazzo Barberini at Quattro Fontane. Many say that this is the Circus of Aurelian; but this is merely guessing, or maybe, as Donati says, what Elagabalus made was taken over or adorned by Aurelian.

So this seems to clearly identify the find spot of the obelisk with what today is called the Circus Varianus.   I don’t think that Hadrian can have erected it there originally, though.  For a large lump of masonry, these obelisks don’t half move around.

Fulvio is presumably Fulvio Orsini, the illegitimate member of the great Orsini family who, becoming a scholar, is today perhaps better remembered by scholars than his legitimate kinsmen.

But I don’t know where to look for this in whatever works Orsini wrote.

  1. [1]Paterna, Claudia. “Il circo Variano a Roma”. In: Mélanges de l’Ecole française de Rome. Antiquité, tome 108, no. 2. 1996. pp. 817-853.  p.820-1: I resti del circo esterni alle mura e l’obelisco, abbattuto e spezzato dai Goti di Totila nel 547 d.C, rimasero visibili almeno fino alla metà del XVI secolo, come testimoniato da studi e piante ricostruttive e da toponimi quali ‘Circo (ed anche Cierchio e Cerchio) Vetere’ e ‘Lo Girolo’, attestati in questo secolo ed in quello successivo 10. Nel 1570, i fratelli Saccoccia, proprietari della vigna dove giaceva l’obelisco, concepirono il progetto di reinnalzare il monumento e per la memoria di questa impresa fecero iscrivere una lapide che, poiché il progetto non fu realizzato, fu collocata nel 1589 su di un pilone dell’acquedotto Felice, dove è tuttora. Nel XVII secolo 11, i resti del circo ed i frammenti dell’obelisco erano stati obliterati anche nella parte fuori dalle mura, ma l’obelisco fu recuperato ed acquistato nel 1633 dal cardinale Francesco Barberini, che lo fece trasportare nel cortile del Palazzo Barberini alle Quattro Fontane, con l’intenzione di farlo erigere nel giardino del palazzo, inizialmente su progetto del Bernini, poi di Carlo Fontana. Il progetto non fu mai realizzato e l’obelisco fu donato nel 1773 da Cornelia Barberini al pontefice Clemente XIV, che lo fece trasferire nel cortile della Pigna in Vaticano, con l’intenzione di farlo erigere sul basamento della colonna di Antonino Pio, trasferito anche esso nel cortile. Nel 1783, il progetto cambiò a favore dell’erezione sulla torre di Porta Pia, ma neanche questo ebbe seguito.

4 thoughts on “The Obelisk of Antinous in the renaissance

  1. Thank you! What a delightfully vivid little history quoted from Claudia Paterna’s article! Interesting to see it was so close to The Basilica di Santa Croce in Gerusalemme (Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem) for so long – the juxtaposition of hieroglyphic inscription and Titulus, seems a rich mage to set beside the Patristic discussions you’ve quoted (and your own reflections).

    (Something else I don’t know: how long anybody in Rome would have gone on being able to read hieroglyphics!)

  2. The hieroglyphs would be understood while the priesthoods existed, and no doubt the Egyptian priests had representatives in Rome.

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