Thursday, October 19, 2006

Transporting the Vatican Obelisk

Eight suggested methods for raising the obelisk

'Eight suggested methods for raising the obelisk'

Descrittione della forma del castello fatto
'Descrittione della forma del castello fatto per alzare la guglia'

La pianta, e compartimento di tutti gli argani
'La pianta, e compartimento di tutti gli argani
con tutte le preparationi fatte per calar la guglia'

La gvglia dentro al castello
'La gvglia dentro al castello, nel modo che stava mentre calaua à basso'

La gvglia per la punta
'La gvglia per la punta, subito che fu colcata sopra lo
strascino, con tvtte le corde, che la sostentavano dentro al
castello fermato con ventole da tramontana, e ostro.'

La pianta, e compartimento di tutti gli argani
'La pianta, e compartimento di tutti gli argani con tutte le
preparationi fatte per calar la gvglia, come s'è detto di sopra'

Douendosi condur la guglia da questo lugo
'Douendosi condur la guglia da questo lugo, sino su a la piazza
San Pietro per distanza di canne cento quindici, e iui drizzarla..'

Monte armato a torno il castello
'Monte armato a torno il castello, che gli sorgeva sopra per drizzar la guglia..'

Tre guglie in piedi per poter mostrare
'Tre guglie in piedi per poter mostrare in vna vista
l'attaccatura delle traglie in tutte tre le facie sudette'

Il castello aperto in faccia
'Il castello aperto in faccia, con la pvnta della gvglia
tiratavi dentro, e i canapi, che la sostentauano.'

Della trasportatione dell'obelisco vaticano
'Della trasportatione dell'obelisco vaticano et delle
fabriche di nostro signore papa Sisto V fatte dal cavallier
Domenico Fontana, architetto di Sva Santita, libro primo.'

Guglia con i suoi adornamenti posta nel mezo della piazza
Guglia con i suoi adornamenti posta nel mezo della piazza;
Fabrica della chiesa di San Pietro nel modo, che starà, quando sarà finita..'

Il palazzo fatto nella vigna di nostro signore mentre era cardinale
'Il palazzo fatto nella vigna di nostro signore mentre era cardinale.'

La Capella del Presepio
'La Capella del Presepio.'

Il grand'obelisco di Costantio a S. Giouanni Laterano
'Il grand'obelisco di Costantio a S. Giouanni Laterano.'

La gvglia della Madonna del Populo
'La gvglia della Madonna del Populo - faccia uerso tramontana,
faccia uerso oriente, faccia uerso mezzogiorno, faccia uerso occidente;
Colonna Antonnia ; Colonna Traiana'

del tabernacolo di metallo
'Questo è il disegno del tabernacolo di metallo dorato à fuoco
per il Santissimo Sacramento collocato su l'altare posto sopra
il Presepio di Christo nostro nella capella di N.'

An 83 feet tall, 320 ton granite obelisk was brought by Caligula from Alexandria in Egypt to Rome aboard the largest ship ever built in ~37AD. It is reported that the ship - a barge - was later sunk on purpose to provide a foundation for a quay in the port of Ostia.

The obelisk - which folklore alleges contained the ashes of Julius Caesar in its metal crowning orb - was somehow erected by Caligula in the famed Circus Maximus.

During the renaissance, long after the Circus Maximus arena had disappeared, the monumental St Peters Basilica construction project, headed by Michelangelo and Giacomo Della Porta, was undertaken at the direction of a number of Popes. The idea of moving the obelisk a quarter of a mile to a place in front of the basilica was raised on several occasions but even Michelangelo declined to believe it was feasible.

Pope Sixtus V was insistent however, and in 1585 invited engineering proposals for carrying out the move. He was apparently persuaded to accept the submission of Domenico Fontana (one of the architectural engineers working under Della Porta) when a model of the engineering system allowed Sixtus to turn winches and successfully move the miniature version of the obelisk himself.

Fontana's project didn't introduce any new engineering techniques but the size and nature of the problem ensured it would be remembered as one of the most amazing technological feats of the 16th century. Reports vary but it seems the move took around 12 months in total to complete; half of the time being spent on scaffold construction and clearing buildings from the area. "The scaffold was operated with tuned precision by 900 men and 74 horses, harmoniously arranged amidst a myriad of pulleys, levers, and capstans".

The obelisk was exorcised, the (ashless, as Fontana advises) orb was replaced by a christian cross and it was erected at its present location on September 14, 1586 before a large crowd who were silenced by the Swiss guard.


Unknown said...

There's a great story about this obelisk. According to legend, in order to ensure the workers would not be distracted, the Pope ordered that anyone who spoke while the obelisk was being moved would be put to death. As the obelisk was being raised, the friction caused the ropes to begin to smolder, but no one would utter a word. Finally, one brave man yelled "Fetch water! The ropes are burning!" The obelisk was saved and as a reward, the Pope decreed that the man would have the honor of serving Mass for the Pope on Ash Wednesday. The last living direct descendent of the man (reportedly), serves Ash Wednesday mass for the Pope to this day.

peacay said...

Thanks for that. Good story indeed!

pushingtide said...

Such a great read.


George Goodall said...

Great find. Fontana's work is quite remarkable. Edmund Halley (of comet fame) owned a copy and there's also a copy with annotations in Galileo's hand. Most researchers are familiar only with Dibner's "Moving the Obelisks", which reprints Fontana's plates. Bern Dibner was a succesful engineer and ambitious book collector. His collection became the core of both the Dibner Library for the History of the Science and Technology and the Burndy Library, currently being moved from MIT to the Huntington Library.

Fontana himself hailed from Melide on Lake Lugano. He was only 12 years younger than the military engineer Agostino Ramelli, who also hails from the shores of Lake Lugano. I can only imagine that they were somehow acquainted!

peacay said...

Cheers George: I had read your musing about Ramelli/Fontana on Facetation. A bit of wishful thinking?

I'd not seen Dibner mentioned at all but I only skimmed much of that Masters thesis.

There's another version around from 100 years after Fontana's book. Glazer Gallery have some images by Alessandro Specchi but it's difficult to see what changes might have been made to the original etchings. {I see mention that Specchi was a student of Fontana but that seems pretty unlikely, Specchi being born in 1668 - maybe 'student of his style'}

I would have thought that sort of 'reconditioning' of an engineering publication would be your stock in trade George, n'est-ce pas?

John Edwards said...

I too loved the burning ropes story . But I just read in Robert Hughes ' "rome" that it's apocryphal as Fontana makes no mention of it nor does anyone else at the time. See page 254. Anyway, cool, huh. Hauling the thng I mean. Making it? Jesus! You know?

Post a Comment

Comments are all moderated so don't waste your time spamming: they will never show up.

If you include ANY links that aren't pertinent to the blog post or discussion they will be deleted and a rash will break out in your underwear.

Also: please play the ball and not the person.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Creative Commons License