The Torlonia obelisks

In 1842 the area of Sacco Pastore, today in Rome's neighborhood Montesacro, saw the arrival by river and transport on the Via Nomentana road of the two granite obelisks, today rising in Villa Torlonia public park, located a few kilometers ahead.
Prince Alessandro Torlonia
(1800-1886) decided to commemorate his parents, Giovanni Raimondo and Anna Maria Schulteiss, dedicating them two obelisks, to be installed in the family villa on the Via Nomentana, set up by the famous architect Giuseppe Valadier for his father.
Following the taste of the time and his personal inclination, Torlonia wanted to imitate the Egyptian obelisks, a typical feature of Rome urban landscape, making engrave on them imitated hieroglyphics, and using the pink granite from the quarries of Baveno, on lake Maggiore, today in the province of Verbania and at that time belonging to the kingdom of Sardinia, because it was more alike than other stones to the granite used by the Egyptians.

From Baveno to Venice
In the spring of 1839 the coarse obelisks were transported from the quarry to the town of Baveno, on the shores of Lake Maggiore, on a 3.7 km (2.3 mi) track; owing to the lack of roads they were made slide on a floor of wooden boards and beams, down to two flat-bottomed boats. From there a sailing began, initially on the lake until Sesto Calende, then on Ticino river and on Naviglio grande canal, down to Milan, after 98.1 km (61 mi), where the obelisks were finished by the stonemason Antonio Nicola Pirovano, in his studio on Martesana canal.
In Milan, the obelisks were taken on board again, sailed on Naviglio Pavese canal, again on the Ticino and then on the Po, passing through Piacenza, Cremona, Guastalla, Pontelagoscuro Cavanella Po and then, through various canals, the Adige and the Brenta river, reached Brondolo di Chioggia and finally sailed by the lagoon to Venice, after a navigation of more than 600 km from the quarry from which they came.
The transportation by sea was committed to Papal Navy captain Alessandro Cialdi, from Civitavecchia, who chose in the port of his city the "Fortunato", a lugger (a two-masted boat, named in Italian trabaccolo or pielago) that reached Venice after 42 days at sea, on August 15
th, 1839, while the barges with the obelisks had reached Venice Arsenal only five days before.
Captain Cialdi, then in his early thirties, as well as an able seaman, was also a naval engineer, able to set up the ship so to warrant a stable and safe navigation, even carrying a very special load. He then made adjust the lugger's hold, under the direction of Francesco di Giovanni, a shipwright from Civitavecchia, removing the deck, so that the obelisks could be placed. On August 29
th, in Venice Arsenal the transfer operations from the barges to the lugger began, which lasted about three hours, using five capstans, two hundred and fifty workers and a dense crowd of onlookers to witness.

From Venice to Villa Torlonia
On September 5
th, the Fortunato set out from Venice, sailed along the Dalmatian coast, then was forced to take shelter from a storm in the port of Durrës, today in Albania, then it coasted Apulia and Calabria, passed through the Strait of Messina and on October 2nd reached Fiumicino, from where it was pulled by water buffaloes until the fluvial harbour of San Paolo in Rome, where it was admired by many onlookers, including Pope Gregory XVI, who wanted to get on board.
Then the problem of how to carry the obelisks to the villa arose: the idea of a journey by land was discarded, for the high risk of accidents, the inconvenience to the city of Rome during the transit, and for the risk of not being able to pass through bridges or arches met on the way, not to mention the slow pace of the transfer, while the prince Torlonia urged a quick delivery.
Prince Torlonia then accepted the Cialdi proposal of a further waterways trip, along the Tiber River until the confluence of Aniene and then on the latter until a meander of the Aniene, named Sacco Pastore, the closest landing place to Villa Torlonia, and in any case downstream of Nomentano bridge. The ship was pulled by buffaloes in the rural areas, and by men within the city, where the passage was accompanied by great popular curiosity, facilitated by the fact that the embankments along the river had not yet been built, and many Romans could see the passage of Fortunato just looking out the window of their house.
The tricky issue of unloading was solved by choosing to pull the lugger out of the water by a slipway and transport it by land with the obelisks on board. The procedure of pulling out the boat occurred on December 26
th, 1839, by five capstans, in the presence of Prince Torlonia, who had disposed to set up pavilions for himself and his illustrious guests, and several onlookers, who had attracted hawkers in huts set up for the occasion.

One hundred and thirty men pulled the Fortunato out of the water in 25 minutes, between salvos of cannons and music of bands. The boat, with its scaffolding for ground transport, started its trip towards Villa Torlonia, over Sacco Pastore quarry, where ninety years later two skulls of Neanderthal men will be found (see page). The passage over the quarry was considered dangerous because of the risk of collapse under the weight of the ship and its load, but the technicians hired by Torlonia had correctly evaluated the route, which stood on the pillars of the quarry, avoiding to encumber the vaults.
After eight days of travel, the first three of which passed to get out from Sacco Pastore area, the boat entered Villa Torlonia on January 9
th, 1840, after a 2,880 km (1,790 mi) journey, of which only the last four by land. The arrival was celebrated even by salvos of cannon and marching bands and a cheering crowd in the presence of distinguished guests, including Maria Cristina of Bourbon-Naples widow of King Charles Felix of Sardinia.
Captain Cialdi was much appreciated for how he had done his job and in September of the same year he was entrusted with the transport, along the Nile, of alabaster columns donated to the Pope by the Viceroy of Egypt, who reached Rome on the mistico (a ship with different sorts of sails) "La Fedeltà" on August 16
th, 1841. The columns were intended to the reconstruction of St. Paul Outside the Walls basilica, destroyed in 1823 by a fire.

The hieroglyphs
Once the final destination was reached, the engraving of the hieroglyphs started, based on texts written by the Barnabite Father Luigi Maria Ungarelli from Bologna (1779-1845), an egyptologist expert in hieroglyphics, who had collaborated with Jean François Champollion. The carvers could refer to the casts of the hieroglyphics of the original Egyptian obelisks of San Giovanni and Piazza del Popolo, in order to imitate their style. The work took place on the lugger "Fortunato" whose sides had been disassembled. When a side was carved, the obelisks were rotated outwards, to expose a new side to sculpt, until the last rotation made them find out of the boat.

The text engraved on the obelisk dedicated to Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia (the one facing the entrance of Via Nomentana) translated in English reads: "Alessandro Torlonia Duke of Ceri made cut from the quarry in Baveno Simplon two noble obelisks. / This obelisk is dedicated by Alessandro the Prince of Civitella Cesi to his father Giovanni former Duke of Bracciano, in order to perpetuate his name in the fatherland. / on the year 1842, on 28th, month of Mesori, when the carved obelisk in pink granite was raised overlooking the north facing gate."
The obelisk dedicated to Anna Maria Torlonia bears this text: "The son of the Duke of Bracciano has graced the edifice of his father (the Villa) has built sumptuous houses, bright as the sun, for the perpetuity of the days. / With singular munificence has Duke Alessandro Torlonia made two obelisks navigate from Ticino to Rome. / Be this monolith named as the obelisk of late Duchess Anna Maria Torlonia, that as a declaration of reverence made his son sculpt. / The year 1842 months Thòot day 23
rd, the obelisk was erected overlooking the south facing gate: may this be for countless days."
The dates of raising, 23
rd April and 28th May, do not correspond with the real ones because they were estimated not predicting any setbacks, that instead occurred and delayed the emplacement of the obelisks.
In order to enable understanding the texts, Alessandro Torlonia made carve the Latin translation of them on the travertine bases of the obelisks; the translation was done by Monsignor Gabriele Laureani
(1788-1850), general guardian of the Academy of Arcadia, and the first keeper of the Vatican Library.

The raising of the obelisks
At the beginning of April 1842 the engraving of the hieroglyphs was completed, and the planning of the raising of the obelisks on their pedestals was enacted. Several projects were examined and discarded, including that presented by Paolo Emilio Provincial, major of the engineer corps, inspired to the method used for Luxor Obelisk, set down in Egypt and raised in Place de la Concorde, in Paris. Eventually the project of young Sir Nicola Carnevali, architect of Metastasio theater in Campo Marzio, was chosen.
The first obelisk, the one dedicated to Giovanni Raimondo, was raised in the afternoon of June 4
th, by one hundred and ninety men, including sixteen gunners that operated eight winches, at the drum roll and in the presence of seven thousand spectators. Strada Pia, now Via XX Settembre and via Nomentana, for the occasion were blocked by a crowd of pedestrians and coaches, among them that of Pope Gregory XVI, who would not miss the event, together with the Bavarian King Ludwig I and three cardinals, including the mighty Secretary of State Luigi Lambruschini.
In about half an hour the obelisk was brought vertically over the pedestal, to be hinged on it, but a heavy shower forced to suspend the operation, in order to seek a shelter. On this occasion, the Pope had the time to visit the Casino Nobile, the Torlonia palace inside the Villa. No sooner could be the raising resumed than after sunset, by torchlight, and after changing the ropes, which were soaked in water and then useless. At last the work was completed between fireworks, firing of firecrackers, balloon launch and music from different bands. The obelisk dedicated to Anna Maria Torlonia was raised on its pedestal on July 26
th, 1842.

The obelisks
The two obelisks are located in front of the two facades of the Casino Nobile: the one dedicated to Giovanni Raimondo Torlonia is located in front of the main facade, facing the gate of via Nomentana, while the one dedicated to Anna Maria Torlonia is located in front of the rear facade.
The obelisks are 10.277 meters (33.717 ft) tall, of which the shaft measures 9.980 m (32.743 ft) and the pyramid-shaped apex (pyramidion) 0.297 m (0.974 ft); the four sides to the base measure 1.117m (3.665 ft) and the four sides on the top are 0.670 m (2.198 ft) long. The volume is 8.51 cubic meters (300.528 sq ft) and the mass is 22.187 tonnes (21,836 long tons).

Alessandro Torlonia
The client of the obelisks, Prince Alessandro Torlonia, enjoyed an immense wealth, due among other things to the Monopoly of salt, granted to him under contract, with exclusivity of trade and collection of the tax, which had yielded enormous earnings. The deputy of the Roman Republic Candido Augusto Vecchi, advocate of the abolition of the monopoly, wrote of Alessandro Torlonia "A man born of low seed, buyer by dint of gold of nobility, of titles, of knightly insignia, who placed his coat of arms everywhere, on the palaces, on the villas, on the haylofts, on the fountains, on the interiors and exteriors of his houses, on the tapestries and elsewhere, so that his friends, his people and the people would believe that his ancestors had brandished spears and swords for the saint conquered instead of the hoe and the plow" [from: VECCHI Candido Augusto. Le vicende della Repubblica romana narrate dal rappresentante del popolo Candido Augusto Vecchi. Quattrini, Firenze 1911] (Natalini).

DIONIGI ORFEI Enrica (1840) Anna Maria Duchessa Torlonia. L’album, Giornale letterario e di Belle Arti, VII, 41, 12 dicembre 1840, 321-323.
GASPARONI Francesco (1842) Sugli obelischi Torlonia nella Villa Nomentana. Tipografia Salviucci, Roma.
MAZIO Paolo (1842) Il Quattro di Giugno. L’album, Giornale letterario e di Belle Arti, IX, 18, 2 luglio 1842, 137-143.
NATALINI Guglielmo (2000) Storia della Repubblica romana del Quarantanove. U. Magnanti, Nettuno.
RAVIOLI Camillo (1842) Quarto ed ultimo rapporto della spedizione romana in Egitto. L’album, Giornale letterario e di Belle Arti, IX, 2, 12 marzo 1842, 9-16.

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page created: June 27th, 2015 and last updated: April 13th, 2022