Bernini’s Elephant & the Obelisk
Tucked away round the back of one of the most visited sites in Rome, one can find a small but immensely captivating obelisk which will most likely arouse your curiosity as it did mine on passing the statue. Indeed, the obelisk in question I’m making reference to is none other than the one and only found in Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva called the ‘Elephant and the Obelisk’.
The Story Behind the Bernini Elephant
As with most monuments, each one has a story to tell and this obelisk which is elevated on a unique pedestal is certainly no exception. It’s unprecedented Egyptian appearance, captivating history and interesting legend is one which ultimately stimulates thought about the past Roman civilization and leaves us yearning to learn more.
An Ancient Obelisk & an Intrigued Pope
Our story starts off with an ancient obelisk and the Pope’s marked interest in it. The obelisk itself dates back centuries and intrigued Pope Alexander VII so much so that upon it’s discovery in the garden adjacent to the Dominican monastery, located in Piazza Maria sopra Minerva, during the mid-17th century that he set a commission for a pedestal to be built for it.
What primarily interested the Pope when it came to the obelisk was the ancient hieroglyphic etched on it. In fact, he asked a well-known Egyptologist at the time to translate its meaning for him. The Egyptologist declared that inscriptions on the needle-like stone meant sunlight and holiness. On hearing this the Pope’s heart burst with even more eagerness to have the pedestal commissioned in order to elevate the obelisk as a symbol of his glory.
The Designs for the Pedestal Rolled in
As designs for the pedestal rolled in, ultimately two were favored; Father Domenico Paglia’s and Bernini’s designs. Bernini’s design consisted of the obelisk raised up high on the back of a little elephant, even though he had never seen an elephant before. Eventually, when the Pope evaluated all of them, Bernini’s design was chosen to the dismay of Father Paglia.
So, Was it Bernini Who Carved the Elephant?
As I relate the story of Bernini’s little elephant to you, you’re most probably picturing the artist now chiseling away at the stone in 17th century Rome in order to transform it into the small but underrated masterpiece. Yet, although it’s widely acclaimed to be the creation of Bernini, the hands that carved it were those belonging to a different man altogether.
Indeed, Bernini was just the creative mind behind the piece who had submitted his design to Pope Alexander VII. But the man who actually chiseled away at the stone fervently with all his might was Ercole Ferranta, a famous baroque sculptor of that era.
The appearance and positioning of the Roman Elephant Sculpture
Today, a few centuries later, the ‘Elephant and the obelisk’ is still exactly where Pope Alexander VII wanted it to be – right in front of the church in Piazza Santa Maria sopra Minerva. It’s sometimes referred to as ‘Pulcino della Minerva’ by the locals and continues to bear testimony to many aspects of Rome’s culture including the Egyptian-inspired Iseum, the piazza itself, the Pope during that era, Bernini and most humorously the little dispute he had had with Father Domenico Paglia over the pedestal he had to place under the elephant’s torso- something which was not in Bernini’s original design and he tried to hide throguh his amended design to include an opulent saddle with tassels.
Ultimately, these are all eminently reflected in the way the stocky little elephant is positioned with his backside facing the Dominican monastery with it’s tail veered slightly to the side for father Paglia to get a view of on walking out the monastery. Moreover, the elephant’s head is also turned away from the church which according to legend hints at Bernini’s disapproval of the way the Dominican’s living in the monastery adjacent to the Piazza had treated Galileo when he was arrested, interrogated and forced to renounce.
The Little Elephant keeps Bernini’s Spirit Alive
From the Ugly Boat fountain at the bottom of the Spanish steps to the Fountain of Four Rivers ,Bernini’s Elephant and the Obelisk found in Piazza sopra Minerva amongst other glorious masterpieces, it’s entirely evident that Bernini’s legacy is one that’s spread all over Rome. The sculpture and painter was one of the greatest of his time and served to capture the Italian capital’s spirit in a profoundly great manner which could in no way be replicated. Through his work on the Elephant and the Obelisk, Bernini’s passionate artistic spirit is one that’s lingered on till this very day and will most likely not disappear. Have you spotted any of Bernini’s other interesting works whilst roaming around Rome? Leave your comment below!
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