Roman elephant

Walking through the various quarters of Rome in summer is a pleasure. Despite its apparent (and real) chaos, Rome has so many facets that every walk reveals new sights. Even old -and apparently commonplace- sights become interesting once we learn more about them.

Although I had walked through the Piazza della Minerva in the past, it had been to get to other of Rome’s main attractions such as the Piazza Navona or the Pantheon. I had noticed the obelisk in the centre but my attention somehow was directed to a plaque informing the public that the Argentinian General José de San Martín stayed at the Grand Hotel de la Minerve in 1846, four years before his death in 1850.

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The plaque on San Martín placed on the front of the hotel.

During this visit, my daughter mentioned that, apart from the Fontana delle Tartarughe (Turtle Fountain) -close to her flat- she also enjoyed seeing the small elephant. So one afternoon we walked there and we got to the Piazza delle Minerva again. Not being one of the popular attractions, this small and rather overlooked piazza does not have the crowds and endless tourists’ queues to stick their hands in the Bocca della Veritá or to enter San Peter’s in the Vatican.

So, with time, we had a look at the obelisk. At the time we noted its rather the rather elongated trunk and agreed that it was a rather peculiar sculpture. Further investigation on its origins and development followed and its creation and symbolism is worth describing.

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The rather long trunk of the marble elephant.

The monument consists of two parts, an Egyptian obelisk -unearthed during some excavations carried out before the 17th Century- and the elephant that carries it. The latter is believed to have been the work of Ercole Ferrata, a disciple of the well-known sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini [1].

At the time of the unearthing of the Egyptian obelisk, Fabio Chigi (Pope Alexander VII) wanted to build a monument to display it. Father Domenico Paglia proposed the idea of the Obelisk resting over six small hills, as well as a dog in each corner, the dog being a symbol of the Dominican priests, the Order he belonged to. The hills recalled the six hills depicted on the Chigi family crest. By depicting the latter he hoped to convince the Pope. However, to Paglia’s surprise, Alexander rejected his design.

The Pope then asked Bernini for an alternative design. Bernini’s first reaction was to place four seated figures holding the obelisk at each corner of a pedestal. As this was not to Alexander’s liking, he presented another option showing the Obelisk resting on a rock and a later proposal depicted Hercules with his knees semi-bent as he hoists the obelisk upward and recalls Atlantis holding up the world.

Eventually Bernini got the agreement of the Pope with a design of an elephant carrying the Obelisk on its back, inspired by a popular novel of the time called “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (“Poliphilo’s The Strife of Love in a Dream” )[2] authored by Francesco Colonna in 1499.

In Bernini’s original drawings, the obelisk’s weight would have fully rested on the legs of the animal. However father Paglia -envious of Bernini receiving the commission and being an architect himself- convinced the Pope that “according to traditional cannons, no weight should rest vertically above an empty space, as it would not be steady nor long lasting” so he strongly recommended that the obelisk should be placed upon a stone block. Bernini was opposed to this modification, especially as he had already proven that he could accomplish such a design in his “Four Rivers Fountain” in Piazza Navona.

Despite Bernini’s opinion, the Pope finally followed Paglia’s advice and decided that a marble cube should be inserted under the elephant. He also had the Latin phrase “These symbols of the science of Egypt, which you see engraved on the obelisk borne by the elephant, the most powerful of all animals, show that a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge” inscribed on the base.

Although Bernini tried to hide the heavy look of the block placed between the elephant’s legs by adding a saddle to the elephant’s back, this was not enough and the elephant acquired a rather heavy appearance that -I am sure to Bernini’s annoyance- originated its nick name of Minerva’s Piggy [3]!

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Despite the addition of the saddle the marble block supporting the obelisk is rather obvious.

The complete work was unveiled in February 1667 and it turned out to be the last commission of Pope Alexander VII as he died a few months later.

There is still a final twist to the story.

Bernini was able to take his revenge upon Paglia and the Pope by shifting the elephant’s tail slightly to the left and in that way pointing its rear end rather obscenely toward the Dominican Monastery sited in the square!

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The elephant’s rear end.

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The elephant with its rear end pointing towards the Dominican Monastery.

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gian_Lorenzo_Bernini

[2] https://echoesofegypt.peabody.yale.edu/hieroglyphs/hypnerotomachia-poliphili

[3] Today the sculpture is popularly known as Minerva’s chick as the Roman dialect word for piggy (“procino”) has been replaced by chick (“pulcino”).

 

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