Bernini’s Elephant Rome (Minerva Obelisk)

The monument known as Bernini’s Elephant or Minerva Obelisk stands in the middle of the Piazza della Minerva in Rome. The statue, an elephant carrying obelisk on its back, is one of the most photographed monuments in the city. Its backside, not entirely coincidentally, is towards the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Church.

Bernini’s Elephant Rome

History and description

Piazza della Minerva Rome (church and elephant)
Bernini elephant

The obelisk itself used to be placed near the no longer existing Temple of Isis. This was one of three temples located near what is now Piazza della Minerva. The other two were dedicated to Serapis and to Minerva.

The obelisk dates back to the 6th century BC and was decorated with material taken from Heliopolis. It had been shipped to Rome, along with several other obelisks, by Domitian. The other ones were the Dogali Obelisk (now in the Viale Luigi Einaudi near Diocletian’s Baths), the Pantheon Obelisk and the Boboli Obelisk, now on display in the garden of the same name in Florence.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini was commissioned to place the obelisk in the square. He did so by placing the monument on the back of a marble elephant. The model for the elephant was a statue that had been given to the city of Rome as a gift by Queen Christina of Sweden, who had converted to the Catholic Church.

According to tradition, the Pope had chosen the animal after receiving a real elephant as a gift from the King of Portugal.

Although it was Bernini who designed the monument, the elephant was sculpted by Ercole Ferrata in 1667.

The inscription on the pedestal means, “Whoever sees here the signs of the Knowledge of Egypt sculpted on the obelisk held high by the elephant, the strongest of all animals, should understand that robust brains are needed to support solid wisdom.”

The Elephant’s Backside and Other Stories

The coat of arms seen on the pedestal is that of Pope Alexander VII. One story that circulated was that the elephant, not entirely coincidentally, had its rear end facing the monastery belonging to the Santa Maria Sopra Minerva Church. This monastery was run by the Dominicans and Bernini, who was not fond of the order, used the statue to make his feelings clear. It is not known whether he had received permission from the Pope to do so.

Another interesting story is that the little elephant, an animal that most Romans at the time had never seen, was soon nicknamed “piglet”, porcin in Roman dialect. This was later corrupted even further to pulcin, meaning “little chick.”

Although it is one of the most famous monuments in Rome, Bernini himself was not very fond of it. When, shortly before his death, he made a list of his best works, the monument was absent.

Not everyone agreed with Bernini. After World War II, an American army officer even tried to abduct the elephant, including the pedestal and obelisk, and take it back to his country.

In 2008, the NIAF (National Italian American Foundation) wanted to give a miniature replica of the elephant to presidential candidates McCain and Obama. Just in time they remembered that the elephant was the symbol of the Republican party.  Obama’s elephant was quickly replaced by a donkey (the symbol of the Democrats).

Minerva obelisk, Rome

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