Bernini’s Little Elephant

You don’t have to look far to find Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s legacy in Rome. Evidence of his genius is everywhere, from the fountain at the base of the Spanish Steps to the sculptures in the Chigi chapel and the Ponte Sant’Angelo. His sculptures of popes, cherubs and mythological figures brim with vigour and passion, but my absolute favourite of his sculptures is much more low key. Tucked in neatly behind the Pantheon there is a gem of a Gothic church called Santa Maria sopra Minerva (St. Mary above Minerva). The name comes from the location; it was built in 1280 over the site of a temple to Minerva. The church itself houses a wealth of extraordinary art but my heart broke into a million tiny pieces at the sight of Bernini’s little elephant standing at the bottom of the obelisk in the piazza outside.

bernini, rome, italy, baby elephant, obelisk, santa maria sopra minerva, minerva's chick, sculpture, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

Officially known as Elephant and Obelisk, it was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII when an obelisk was discovered in the garden of the adjacent Dominican monastery in 1665. Not only was the church built above a temple to Minerva; it would appear the temple to Minerva was built above or near an Iseum, an Egyptian-inspired cult worshipping the goddesses Isis and Serapis.For some reason the pope wanted the obelisk displayed in the piazza and called for architects to submit designs for the base of the obelisk.

One of those submitting a design was a Dominican priest by the name of Father Domenico Paglia. His design was rejected in favour of Bernini’s elephant. When Bernini’s design was unveiled, Father Paglia, perhaps still smarting from his rejection, raised concerns about the stability and Bernini was forced to place a supporting block underneath the elephant’s torso. Bernini tried to obscure the block by adding the ornate saddle with tassels that hung down low but that made the elephant look squat and dumpy and he was never happy with the end result. It was said that he would avert his gaze when he passed by, and he omitted it from the list of his life’s work. Local Romans wasted no time making fun of the stocky little elephant, christening it Porcino della Minerva (Minerva’s piglet). Over the years it has morphed into Pulcino della Minerva (Minerva’s chick) – which it is still affectionately referred to as today.

A striking feature of the sculpture is the elephant’s head, turned quite markedly away from the church, leading some to speculate upon its meaning. It was here in 1633 that Galileo Galilei was summoned, held and interrogated by the infamous Inquisition in the adjacent Dominican monastery and forced to recant. There are those who believe the elephant’s shunning of the church was Bernini’s way of condemning their treatment of Galileo.

Bernini did manage to get his own back on the meddling Dominican priest. The statue is placed carefully in the Piazza della Minerva with its rear end facing the Dominican monastery. The elephant’s tail is shifted ever so delicately to the left, so every time Father Paglia exited the monastery, he was greeted with a very clear view of the elephant’s nether regions.

bernini, rome, italy, baby elephant, obelisk, santa maria sopra minerva, minerva's chick, sculpture, travel, travelogue, ailsa prideaux-mooney

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About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - wheresmybackpack.com - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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24 Responses to Bernini’s Little Elephant

  1. aj vosse says:

    Great!! I’ll have to go visit the piglet sometime in my life!! Take a rear end view of life?? 😉

  2. ladyredspecs says:

    Great post Ailsa, I must return to Rome and visit Bernini’s elephant!

  3. Patti Ross says:

    I love anything with elephants. He does look rather sad. I do like the idea of his stance giving various hidden messages. Like Mulder says on X-Files, “I want to believe.”

    • ailsapm says:

      From some angles he looks sad, Patti, but from others you’d swear he has a sneaky little grin – perhaps because he knows why his head is turned away from the church! Believe. 😉

  4. Debbie Smyth says:

    Great story. I love it. And I think he looks cute -I’m short myself 🙂

  5. As if the other indiscrete positions were not enough, it appears that the elephant is using his tusk to “flip off” those who insult him. 🙂

  6. Nice storytelling. Seems like Bernini got the last word in this battle. Your blog is always entertaining.

  7. What a fascinating sculpture and history! It is so interesting to me that the Christian Church built a lot of their big churches on top of holy sites of the more ancient religions.

  8. lolaWi says:

    great sculpture and a very interesting history! something to look forward to on my next trip to rome. thank you!

  9. Amy says:

    Great post, Ailsa! Love the story. Bernini liked to use “turned away” to express how he felt… He did one for the four fountains 🙂

  10. Heyjude says:

    I adore elephants and this one is a little cutie – I also think he is giving someone the finger – just look at that trunk! Wonderful post Ailsa 🙂

  11. awe, this elephant is so cute! Besides being masterfully carved out of stone, of course 🙂 Thank you for the history and a sight-seeing lesson!

  12. suej says:

    Great story, thanks for an informative post!

  13. Rusha Sams says:

    What a great elephant in a great place. May never get there so I’m especially grateful for your informative and creative post!

  14. I would love to see that in person. Thank you for sharing (and explaining) this hidden treasure.

  15. leejagers says:

    Please update my e-mail address to LeeJagers@gmail.com
    After September 1, I will no longer going to be at LJagers@dts.edu
    Thanks
    Dr. J.

    • ailsapm says:

      Hi Dr. J. I just signed you up with your new email address so check your gmail inbox because you should have received an email asking you to confirm your subscription.

      WordPress.com only allows subscribers to unsubscribe themselves – I can’t remove your old email, you have to do it yourself. Don’t worry, it’s pretty easy. Here’s how: Just go to wheresmybackpack.com and at the very top there should be the word ‘Following’ with a check mark beside it. When you hover over it with your mouse it will change into a prompt for ‘Unfollow’ – click once to unsubscribe your old email address. Once you’ve successfully unsubscribed, it will change into a prompt for ‘Follow’ – that’s when you know you have unsubscribed your old email address. Let me know if you have any difficulties.
      xxx Ailsa

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