Pianta del sito della Piazza fatta per alzare la Guglia. Domenico / GUERRA FONTANA, Natale, Giovanni / BONIFACIO.
Fontana’s Plan for Lowering the Vatican Obelisk
Rare, Separately Issued Etching
Rome, Bartolomeo Grassi, [c.1586 or slightly later].

Pianta del sito della Piazza fatta per alzare la Guglia.

Folio [50.9 x cm 37.0 the platemark], single-sheet etching. Wide margins, some marginal staining, numeral LII added in ink outside platemark at bottom right. A fine bold strike.

Rare, separately issued etching depicting the architect-engineer Domenico Fontana’s (1543-1607) technical plan for the 30 April 1586 lowering of the Vatican Obelisk from its ancient placement on the south flank of Saint Peter’s, whence it soon would be moved to its current location as the centerpiece of the Piazza di San Pietro in front of the church to the east. One of the supreme achievements of early modern engineering – a public works ‘event’ unrivaled since the era of Imperial Rome – is here captured in one of the most inventive technical prints conceived during the early modern period, a tour de force in conveying at a glance, in a single graphic presentation, the extreme complexity of this ambitious, highly risky project.

The print, published by Bartolomeo Grassi, was etched/engraved by Natale Bonifacio (1537-92) after a design by the Modenese painter Giovanni Guerra (c. 1544-1618), who took direction from Fontana himself. This team of artists also collaborated on three other prints related to the Vatican Obelisk: two spectacular 3-sheet etchings, and one single-sheet view. The first 3-sheet print appeared by the end of March 1586 and described in several views the methods Fontana soon would use to lift, lower, move, and re-erect the obelisk. The second 3-sheet print, which depicts the actual lowering of the obelisk on 30 April, was released in August 1586, i.e., while the obelisk lay prone waiting to be lifted and fixed into its final position on 10 September. The other separately issued etching by Guerra, Bonifacio, and Grassi was a single-sheet view commemorating the consecration on 26 September 1586 of the Vatican Obelisk (and including in the background an idealized depiction of what Sixtus V hoped would be the final form of New Saint Peter’s once built in the coming years) (for these prints, see M. Bury, p. 102-4). 

Fontana, Guerra, and Bonifacio would again collaborate on Fontana’s 1590 Della trasportatione dell’obelisco, “the greatest illustrated architectural book of the sixteenth century” (Avery’s Choice, no. 24), in which the finished Vatican obelisk project was treated retrospectively, with imagery from the original prints broken down into constituent parts and re-engraved as simpler compositions more easily digested in a smaller format and by a wider audience. “Fontana’s book [and the 4 large prints which preceded it] differed from many of the spectacular ‘Theaters of Machines’ that were published in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries in that he was depicting not theoretically possible machines but offering testimony to a completed project, showing the steps from beginning to end that had already been successfully carried out” (P. Long, p. 204).

The present technical etching shows the worksite in plan, including contours of the south side of Saint Peter’s. The obelisk encased in a framework of wooden beams stands at the center-right. The event on 30 April 1586 was populated with thousands of figures looking on or engaged in working the great machine Fontana called the castello, a twin tower made of huge timbers erected on both sides of the obelisk which combined the functions of scaffolding and a crane. Here, the 40 circular capstans with ropes connected to the castello, 907 men, and 75 horses are conveyed schematically, in simple plan or as numbers understood by reference to a key at the bottom left. Capstan 20, for example, is labeled “C1 H9 C1 H10,” meaning that its four handles were worked by 2 horses (C = cavallo) and two teams of 9 and 10 men (H = huomini) respectively; a number 3 outside the sweep of the capstan shows that three men were used there to coil and uncoil the excess rope as needed. These capstans were turned in an elaborate choreography signaled by trumpets and bells, the order of their working described here in the key. At the left and right edges of the print, the four sides of the obelisk are shown in elevation, with pullies attached to ropes numbered in correspondence with the numbered capstans shown in plan. Pictorial elements in the bottom half of the composition enliven the print: a single team of horses and men is depicted at the bottom right, while at the left a trumpeter sits atop a rampart built to level the ground between the lowering site and re-erection site and along which the obelisk would be transported on a sledge.

The print is undated, but the arms at the upper left refer to the first year of the reign of Sixtus V (his papacy began 24 April 1585); this chronology likely refers to the genesis of the project, not the production of the print, given that text of the print suggests that the 30 April 1586 lowering had already happened. The etching was separately issued, likely in 1586, but it also was added by Grassi to at least some copies of Pietro Galesini’s 1587 Obeliscus Vaticanus (rare), a composite volume collecting pamphlets related to the obelisk project (see, e.g., the Lyon copy). The copper matrix of the print is now lost, but it survived at least into the 18th century (as did those for the 3-sheet etchings described above), when it was reprinted in Johan Blaeu’s Theatrum civitatum et admirandorum Italiae (Amsterdam, 1663) and its iterations, i.e., the 1704 Nouveau theatre d’Italie, where it appears with the roman numeral LII engraved in the plate at the bottom right. The present strike of the print does not have these roman numerals and so dates from an earlier period (the numeral LIV is, however, added in manuscript outside the platemark, suggesting it once formed part of a larger collection of images, the usual condition by which such ephemeral pieces survived).

“During the papacy of Sixtus V, from 1585 to 1590, a dramatic new form of popular entertainment caught the Roman imagination – great feats of engineering involving the transport and erection of obelisks … But relocating obelisks presented serious difficulties. The most obvious was simply the daunting task of moving these immense objects, the largest of which weighed hundreds of tons. With few minor exceptions, obelisks had not been moved or raised in Rome since antiquity. And the methods the ancients had used were not precisely known. In the case of the Vatican obelisk, whose transport had been considered (and postponed) for over a century, the difficulty was compounded by the fact that it still stood and needed to be lowered before it could be moved. The prospect of a broken Vatican Obelisk could only be envisioned with dread, since an engineering failure of that magnitude would certainly undermine papal authority” (Curran, pp. 104-6).

The 26-meter red granite monolith, originally erected at Heliopolis by an unknown pharaoh, was transported by Caesar Augustus to Alexandria, where it stood until AD 37, at which time Caligula shipped it to Rome to serve as the spina at the center of the Circus of Nero. Saint Peter was martyred and buried adjacent to the Circus, and in the 4th century Constantine had a large basilica (now known as “Old Saint Peter’s”) built atop a shrine which had sprung up at Peter’s grave. The obelisk remained upright through the Middle Ages, on the south flank of the church, but with no particular orientation or alignment with the church’s architecture. When Julius II decided in 1505 to demolish Old Saint Peter’s and to begin building the church we see there today, the awkward siting of the obelisk was addressed, but the extreme technical difficulty of lowering, moving, and re-erecting the monolith frightened even the most confident architects and engineers (Michelangelo, when asked why he was reluctant to try, replied simply, “And if it were broken?”). Fontana eventually took up the challenge after the election of Sixtus V in 1585, and events moved swiftly from there: On 25 September 1585 Fontana began digging the foundation for the new pedestal in piazza, and, exactly a year later, on 26 September 1586, work on the re-erection of the obelisk was finished (see Curran, et al., pp. 103-40).


OCLC locates no U.S. examples of this etching.

* S. Boorsch, “The Building of the Vatican: The Papacy and Architecture,” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. XL, no. 3 (1982-3), pp. 1-64; M. Bury, The Print in Italy 1550-1620, pp. 102-4, no. 64; B. Dibner, Moving the Obelisk; B. A. Curran, A. Grafton, et al., Obelisk: A History, pp. 103-40; P. O. Long, Engineering the Eternal City: Infrastructure, Topography, and the Culture of Knowledge in Late Sixteenth-Century Rome.

Price: $2,450.00