Monday, July 20, 2015

The Agony and the Obelisk

In Rome the various obelisks have "nicknames" that hint at their history.  Today's example has been referred to as the Agonale Obelisk.  The name tells a story of its own, one in which the obelisk makes a very late appearance.

Agony is a peculiar word.  It is of Greek origin and evolved through various forms.  Agon is to assemble for a contest.  Agonia is a struggle - mostly mental - for victory in a contest.  By the late 14th century it is in French, agonie, meaning anguish or terror.  One gets the idea that a sports venue is involved here somehow.

Just so.  Welcome to the site of the Stadium of Domitian, build circa 86 AD as a venue for athletic competitions.  Below is one of the entrances, preserved near the north end of the complex.  These arcades saw some saucy bits of history over the years, supposedly prostitutes plied their trade there during the debauched rule of Emperor Elagabalus.  Somewhat more chastely, Saint Agnes was put to death near here during the harsh reign of Diocletian.

Through additional linguistic mutations the open space that was once the Circus Agonalis is now called Piazza Navona.  It still has an oval shape, remembering the stadium structures that lie beneath the modern buildings.  It is a rather fun place.

Oh, and there is an obelisk.  Pope Innocent X parked it there in 1649.  He had a Palace on the Piazza and thought he would improve the view.

It is a nice obelisk.  It is known to be of Egyptian origin but carved during the Roman era.  It has hieroglyphics that appear to show the Emperor Domitian being crowned, so might have been brought here when he came to power in 81 AD.  Its original location is speculative.  Later (AD 309) the Emperor Maxentius had it moved out of town to his villa on the Appian Way.  It adorned the circus that he built to honor his deceased son Romulus. When things went bad for the Empire the obelisk fell and broke into various pieces. The Pope did not move the obelisk just to improve his view, he also had to foretall that Grand Tourist and Collector, The Earl of Arundle who had already put down a deposit on the broken fragments of the obelisk as they lay on the spina of Maxentius' Circus.

The obelisk is supported by another nice fountain by Bernini.  This is the Fountain of the Four Rivers.  The Piazza is now home to all manner of street artists.  Interesting to see whose caricatures Italian cartoonists think will be in high demand.  Putin.  Morgan Freeman.  Some lady with large cheekbones.

I wonder how many George W. Bush pictures he sells?  

Here is another fountain, one of my personal Roman faves.  Fontana del Moro by a fellow named Giacomo della Porta.

Busking can be hard work, or sometimes just a solitary mission.  This guy dressed in the garb of a Hindu fakir just sits there all day, expecting that if you come close enough to try and figure out his trick, you will toss him a coin for its ingenuity.

No comments: