Bernini's Elephant: A Curious Medley
Updated: Dec 29, 2022
Rome is full of surprises. In the historic center of the city, just moments away from the Pantheon, you will find a baroque stone elephant surmounted by an ancient Egyptian pagan obelisk! Let's take a closer look at Bernini's elephant.
The 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 (with a Renaissance façade).
To learn more about Bernini's wonderful elephant, check out my video!
Now you may be wondering, why an elephant, and what inspired its creation? Let’s start from the very beginning...
In 1665, while digging the foundations of a wall in the garden of the monastery next to the church, Dominicans uncovered an obelisk inscribed with Egyptian hieroglyphs. Measuring around 5.5 metres in height, this is Rome’s smallest obelisk. It was most likely brought to Rome in the first half of the 1st century AD by the emperor Diocletian to adorn an Iseum (a temple) originally located underneath the church.
You see, the church stands on what used to be an ancient temple of the Egyptian goddess Isis that was later re-dedicated to the Goddess Minerva – hence the name Santa Maria Sopra Minerva (which translates to: St Mary above Minerva).
Upon the discovery of the obelisk, Pope Alexander VII (born as Fabio Chigi) commissioned a project with the aim of finding a worthy setting and placement for the obelisk. Many artists were asked to submit designs.
A Dominican priest named Father Domenico Paglia, who was resident in the monastery to the left of the church, was among the first to do so. Unfortunately, both his designs were rejected because, according to the Pope, they did not evoke the idea of Holy Knowledge. The Pope wanted 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 then requested to submit some designs, and the Pope swiftly chose his design featuring an elephant.
This may seem an unusual 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 very likely one of those who saw it in person, especially considering his realistic rendering of the animal.
So why did the Pope like the idea? Well, due to their solid bodies and study limbs, elephants have long thought to encapsulate fortitude, knowledge, and wisdom. What better way to complement the obelisk - which in itself was thought to represent Divine Knowledge – than to show it balancing atop a study representation of wisdom.
The Latin inscription on the pedestal says reinforces this idea:
“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.”
The addition of the pope’s heraldic insignia at the top of the obelisk confirm that he is claiming the obelisk and its association of Divine Wisdom as his own.
So, in its entirety, the monument shows the virtue of Divine Wisdom (as symbolised by the pagan obelisk and its associations), balancing atop the shoulders of the noble elephant, who in turn acts as a very appropriate heraldic encapsulation of the erudite and virtuous Pope himself.
Elephants have always thought to be noble and strong animals who possess an incredible natural intelligence and wisdom. And here, Bernini has arguably exaggerated some of the elephants’ features in order to accentuate its wisdom even more.
Bernini has rendered the elephant with large, upturned pupils, and a noticeably big forehead – i.e. symbols of wisdom. The elephant also has scallop-shaped ears that resemble conch shells, a.k.a. symbols of sanctity.
The elephant’s large eyes have also humanised the animal; the strategic exaggeration of these anatomical features perhaps helps to create a human expression of intelligence that we can better recognise. Some scholars even argue that Bernini gave the elephant the typological features of the pope.
Bernini’s design was very likely inspired and based on a 15th century novel by Francesco Colonna which was really well known at the time [Hypnerotomachia Polyphili of 1499 - Poliphil’s Love of the Dream Battle). 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’s 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 Colonna’s novel) in order to support the weight of the obelisk, which the Pope unfortunately 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 as the Porcino della Minerva ('Minerva’s Piggy') which, over time, mistakenly morphed into Pulcino della Minerva ('Minerva’s Chick').
Unfortunately, the pope died in May of 1667, before this sculpture was finished, so he never saw it in its finished state.
A well-known anecdote states that Bernini placed the elephant with its rear end facing the Dominican monastery, and 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.
In 2016 (November 15th), this sculpture was vandalized. The police were not able to find the culprits responsible for breaking the elephant's left tusk, and leaving it on the ground nearby. It has since been reattached.
Salvador Dali’s painting The Elephants, which features two elephants each bearing an obelisk, is based on this sculpture.
If you are interested in learning more about Baroque art, check out my course entitled The Art of the Baroque.