- Museum number
- Series: Speculum Romanae Magnificentiae
The moving of St Peter's Obelisk; from left to right, the obelisk standing on a square; at centre, the obelisk being laid down onto a rolling device, using scaffolding and capstans powered by horses; the obelisk, lying on the device and being moved to its new location; a cross section of the obelisk and the scaffolding surrounding it; and at r, the obelisk standing on a square; with Sixtus V' coat-of-arms flanked by personifications of Religion and Magnificence, and surmounting cartouche; two more cartouches at right and at left; in border ornate with stars and mountains, emblems of Sixtus V. 1586
- Production date
Height: 529 millimetres (trimmed; three plates joined together)
Width: 1166 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- Text from Michel Bury: 'The Print in Italy 1550-1620' (London, 2001), p.102, cat.64.
This print presents in an extremely imaginative way Domenco Fontana's scheme for the moving of the Vatican obelisk in 1586. Use is made of a great variety of visual conventions, from diagram and sectional elevation to perspective view, with the images keyed to extended pieces of explanatory text by means of letters of the alphabet. The views of the obelisk as it was and as it was to be, are represented as if on separate pieces of paper or parchment that have been unrolled on top of a sheet showing the methods that were to be employed for the actual moving. By these means an immense amount of information is conveyed in a visually exciting and attractive manner.
Sixtus V's (1585-90) idea of moving the obelisk from its relatively obscure site to the south of the Basilica, in order to align it on the main east/west axis, was intended, in the words of Fontana: 'to provide the greatest and the most excellent pedestal for the Cross that has ever been made, and also to abolish the memory of ancient superstition and to adorn both the Piazza and the spectacular new building of St Peter's ('di fare un piede alla Croce, il maggiore, et il più eccellente, ch'a lei sia stato fatto giàmai, e per levar la memoria della superstitione antica, e per adornarne la piazza, e la nuova fabrica stupenda di San Pietro' (see 'Della Trasportatione', 1590, f.4v.).
The idea had not orginated with Sixtus. Camillo Agrippa referred to the fact that when he first came to Rome in 1535, he found it being talked about ('Trattato ..di trasportare la guglia in su la piazza di San Pietro' Rome, 1583, p.5). Early in Sixtus' pontificate a number of people had put forward proposals for accomplishing this exceptionally challenging task. The decision to choose Domenico Fontana's scheme was made in a special Congregation which met from 24 August 1585. Fontana began work on the foundations for the placing of the obelisk on the Piazza di San Pietro on 25 September 1585 ('Della Trasportatione', 1590, ff.4v-5v). The actual process of moving it began on the last day of April 1586, employing 5 levers, 40 capstans, 907 men and 75 horses.
The design for the present print must have been produced before the arrangements for the moving were finalised, for some aspects of what is shown do not correspond with what we know actually happened. Fontana was later to draw attention to this in his book, 'Della Trasportatione', where he felt it necessary to correct the estimate of the weight of the obelisk as it had been given in one of the texts on the print ('Della Trasportatione', 1590, f.9v). The most obvious differences between what is represented and what was finally done were, firstly, the fact that steps were provided on the main outer beams of the wooden 'castle' to allow the workmen to climb up and down; secondly, that men accompanied the horses at the capstans to ensure a more precise control over the amount of weight each of them supported at any one time; and thirdly, that the number of 'verghe' (the vertical elements of the metal frame in which the obelisk was encased) was reduced from 4 to 3 on each side. Giovanni Guerra, who made the drawing for the etcher to work from, was therefore almost certainly using drawings by Fontana himself.
How much of the final appearance of the print should be attributed to Fontana and how much to Guerra, must remain in doubt. A preparatory drawing in the Bibliothèque de l'École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, (Cecchi Gattolin and Parma Armani, 1978, p.86, no.77bis) shows how Guerra worked towards the final solution. But the need for technical accuracy makes it likely that Fontana would have been closely involved even at this stage. Guerra would primarily have been concerned with creating a visually effective and informative whole that would make an appropriate impact when presented in the form of a print. The placement of the components and the designs of the cartouches will certainly have been his. The fiction of using overlayed pieces of paper or parchment to show the obelisk itself, already employed in the Paris drawing, could well have been his idea too. The finished print has a 'terminus ante quem' of the end of March 1586, because it is mentioned in Grassi's dedication to Alessandro Peretti Montalto of Pigafetta's Discorso (F. Pigafetta, 'Discorso d'intorno all'historia della aguglia', Rome, 1586).
There is a second three-plate print, of August 1586, showing the first stage of the actual moving of the obelisk, when it was raised up out of the ground ready to be lowered onto the platform that would transport it (an impression is in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford). It has the same border and was presumably conceived as a companion to the earlier one. However it was evidently issued separately, because one of the inscriptions reveals that it was not expected that the viewer of the one would have access to the other ('Because it has not been possible in the present print to show the size of the obelisk, as was done in the first, it has seemed appropriate to give that information here as well for those who have not seen it.'). There is also a third, much smaller etching showing the arrangement of the capstans for the raising of the obelisk. On both of these we find once again Fontana's name with Guerra's as draftsman and the address of Bartolomeo Grassi (Cecchi Gattolin and Parma Armani, p.87, nos 78 and 79). Grassi and Guerra collaborated on a 4th print, showing the consecration of the Cross to be placed on the top of the obelisk, dated 1587 (Cecchi Gattolin and Parma Armani, pp.87-8, no.80). In that case Fontana's name does not appear at all. Grassi also published a whole series of books and pamphlets that discussed, described or celebrated the moving of the obelisk.
Grassi usually described himself as a bookseller; most of the books which he published were in fact printed for him by others. His role, therefore, would have been primarily in the financing and the distribution of the prints. The etcher of all four, Natale Bonifacio, had worked for Grassi and Principio Fabricii on the latter's 'Delle allusioni, imprese et emblemi sopra la vita di Gregorio XIII', which was finally published in Rome in 1588 (see Mortimer, 1974, I, pp.252-53, no.177). Bonifacio will have been contracted specifically to undertake the tasks of etching these great plates.
The very large size and the elaborate border with an adjusted Greek key pattern with the monti and star of Sixtus V's coat-of-arms suggest that it was anticipated that it would be hung on a wall.
- Not on display
- Associated events
- Associated Event: Moving of St Peter's obelisk 1586
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number