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      -Essay: Obelisks and Their Books
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  • One of the first stops for any visitor to Rome is St. Peter’s Square. At the very center, against the imposing backdrop of St. Peter’s Basilica, with its huge façade and its famous dome, an obelisk of pink granite from Egypt perches with surprising lightness on the backs of four miniature bronze lions. Carved of Aswan granite in the reign of Nebkaure Amenemhet II (1992-1985 B.C.), the obelisk originally stood before the pylon to the Temple of the Sun at Heliopolis. It was brought to Rome in 37 A.D. by the emperor Caligula as one of many tokens of the Roman conquest of Egypt, and was erected in the Circus of Caligula (later the Circus of Nero). In 1585, Pope Sixtus V announced that he would move the obelisk as part of his master plan for the renovation of the city of Rome. Five hundred contenders thronged to Rome to present their plans, but that of Domenico Fontana seemed to promise the most successful results: Fontana’s huge wooden scaffolding, each leg made of four tree trunks bound together, took the full measure of the granite hulk it was designed to move with gentle precision. The obelisk was rolled to its new location on logs, a process that took just over a year and captivated the city’s populace.

    Fontana’s successful effort – the greatest engineering accomplishment of the sixteenth century – was memorialized in 1590 in a lavish and intricately detailed volume that described the moving of the obelisk as well as many of Sixtus’ other building projects. Fontana lent his text an immediacy and an authenticity that recaptures the calculated daring that went into moving the Vatican obelisk and evokes the full force of its drama; the beautiful and technically accurate engravings were directly adapted from the architect’s own drawings.

    The original book imaged for this digital edition:
    17 1/8 x 11 3/8 inches (435 x 289 mm)
    Technological Triumph
    Domenico Fontana’s Della Trasportatione dell’Obelisco Vaticano (On the Transportation of the Vatican Obelisk, 1590) was as much a commemorative publication as it was a technological one. Once the task of moving the massive stone 260 yards was successfully completed, its story could be lavishly told: such an engineering feat, once pulled off, took on quasi-miraculous stature. This great accomplishment warranted a lavish folio, written in the vernacular, with thirty-eight splendid etchings, and most importantly, published by the official Vatican press.
    Michelangelan Misgivings
    Domenico Fontana was one of five hundred architects and engineers who bid for the task of moving the Vatican Obelisk to its present location. His Della Transportatione dell’Obelisco Vaticano (1590) expresses a sense of the care and nervousness accompanying such a task. This was largely because the Vatican Obelisk was the only one of Imperial Rome’s forty-eight to survive the Middle Ages upright. The precarious nature of the task was best summed up by Michelangelo, who repeatedly turned down the job before it was given to Fontana, when he said: “What if it breaks?”
    Architectural Activities
    While Domenico Fontana’s Della Transportatione dell’Obelisco Vaticano (1590) deals primarily with its stated subject, the title is somewhat misleading. The story of the Vatican Obelisk does occupy a third of the book and a proportional number of etchings (12 out of 38). However, two thirds of each are given over to Fontana’s other architectural projects, most of which were done at the behest of the same pope, Sixtus V. Notable among these are the movement of the Chapel of the Manger at Santa Maria Maggiore and the construction of the Vatican Library. The book, published by the Vatican, serves as its own monument to both the architect/author and his patron.