Bernini's Elephant: A Curious Medley
Updated: Dec 2, 2020
If you have ever wandered blindly through the streets of the open museum we call Rome, you know you are bound to stumble across something surprising and exciting … like this perfect medley of a baroque stone elephant; surmounted by an ancient Egyptian pagan obelisk; located in a square in front of a medieval Dominican church with a Renaissance facade.
I mean, why not.
This marble elephant was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and executed by his assistant Ercole Ferrata in 1667. It stands in Piazza della Minerva in front of the Gothic church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (executed with a Renaissance façade).
The obelisk that surmounts the elephant was excavated in 1665 in the gardens of the Dominican monastery, moments away from the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. It is around 5.5 metres tall, making it the smallest of all of Rome’s obelisks. It was most likely brought to Rome in the first half of the 1st century AD by the emperor Diocletian to adorn the Iseum (temple) dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, originally located underneath the church (the Egyptian cult was brought to Rome in antiquity, and it quickly gained many roman followers).
This sculpture was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII; he asked many artists to submit designs. The Dominican priest Father Domenico Paglia, who was resident in the Dominican monastery to the left of the church, submitted two designs which were both rejected on account of not evoking Holy Knowledge, which the Pope wanted the sculpture to express. The Pope desired for the statue to evoke the virtue of Divine Wisdom which was common to the Egyptian gods of the Iseum (Isis, Minerva and Maria), thus referencing the original dedication of the site.
Bernini was requested to submit some designs, and the Pope chose his design featuring an elephant.
It may seem a strange choice of animal, especially considering that in Bernini’s time, elephants were not common at all in Rome. In 1630, an elephant visited Rome for the first time in over 100 years, and Bernini was likely one of those who saw it in person, especially considering his realistic rendering of the animal.
The elephant, due to its solid body and sturdy limbs, came to stand for an allegorical encapsulation of fortitude, knowledge and wisdom. The Latin inscription on the pedestal says: “Let any beholder of the carved images of the wisdom of Egypt on the obelisk carried by the elephant, the strongest of beasts, realize that it takes a robust mind to carry solid wisdom.”
Bernini’s design was very likely was inspired and based on the Hypnerotomachia Polyphili of 1499 (Poliphil’s Love of the Dream Battle); a 15th century novel by Francesco Colonna which was really well known at the time. Even Pope Alexander VII owed his own copy. In the novel, the main character Poliphil comes across a stone elephant surmounted by an ancient obelisk.
Originally, Bernini design features the obelisk resting atop the elephant without a structural base under its body, thus surpassing the design found in the roman novel. However, Father Paglia, bitter and resentful after being rejected, insisted that, in line with traditional canons, one should never have a heavy weight resting atop a hollow space, as this would be unstable. He demanded that there be a cube inserted below the elephant’s body (in line with the Hypnerotomachia Polyphili) in order to support the weight of the obelisk, which the Pope agreed to.
Annoyed, Bernini attempted to cover up the cube with the addition of a marble saddle-cloth, but this did not stop his elephant from looking rather podgy. And so, because of its podgy nature, the people of Rome began to refer to this sculpture it as the Porcino della Minerva ('Minerva’s Piggy') which, over time, mistakenly morphed into Pulcino della Minerva ('Minerva’s Chick'). (Pulcino is roman dialect for ‘chick’)
Unfortunately, the pope died in May of 1667, before this sculpture was finished, so he never saw the finished picture.
A well-known anecdote states that Bernini placed the elephant with its rear end facing the Dominican monastery, with its tail snaking to the left, thus exposing its clenched and tensed buttocks and consequently forming a highly indecent greeting that would confront the Dominicans each time they looked out onto the piazza. The elephant also looks like he is smiling from certain angles, while enacting this permanently impolite salute.
The ultimate form of revenge.
FUN FACT: In 2016 (November 15), this sculpture was vandalized. The police were unable to find the culprits who broke the left tusk of the elephant, leaving it on the ground nearby. It has since been reattached.
FUN FACT: Salvador Dali’s painting The Elephants, which features two elephants each bearing an obelisk, is based on this sculpture.