If you go for a stroll around the area of Piazza del Pantheon in Rome, you are likely to come a cross a peculiar square called Piazza della Minerva, a small hidden spot that is home of one equally peculiar monument: the statue of an elephant carrying an Egyptian obelisk on its back.
Obelisks are easy to find in Rome and you don’t have to look further than landmarks such as piazza Navona or even Piazza San Pietro to see incredible examples of them. Elephants, on the other end, are a rare sight in the Eternal city, so this chunky pachyderm makes this obelisk pretty unique. Unique is also the story, or I should maybe say the gossip, that surrounds its construction: it is one of the many legends that surround Bernini and I find it really funny.
The story highlights two of the most distinctive traits of the Romans: cynicism and humor.
The obelisk of Piazza dell Minerva came to Rome from Egypt, where it would have been originally used to mark the entrance of a temple, probably in a pair with a similar one. We do not know the exact circumstances in which it was bought to Rome but we know that it was discovered in the second part of the 17th century, during excavations in the Dominican convent still overlooking the square.
The finding of Egyptian sculptures in Rome is slightly less unusual than what we may think: Egyptian deities, and Isis in particular, were hugely popular in Roman times and in 43 b.C. a big Iseum (temple of Isis) was built right in the area of Piazza della Minerva, where is stayed until Rome converted to Christianity: when that happened, the temple fell from use and the obelisk got lost among its ruins, until brought to light again by the excavation.
The discovery of the obelisk happened in 1665 and it was welcomed with great excitement by Pope Alexander the VII, who decided to use it to decorate the little square. Since the obelisk is not very tall (about 5 metres), the Pope commissioned a base for it and was presented with several ideas and drawings, from known and lesser known architects.
And here is were the gossip starts.
Tradition tells us that the first person to submit a drawing was a Dominican priest, Domenico Paglia. While imaginative, his drawing was refused and the Pope favourited in its place the plan submitted by Bernini, which is the blueprint of what we see in the square today. The monument was meant to symbolise the Divine Knowledge and Bernini thought that the elephant could represent fortitude, the virtue necessary to sustain it. The symbolism was to be explained by the inscription on the pedestal of the building that reads: …a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge”.
The success of Bernini’s idea left Domenico Paglia, so to speak, unimpressed, so the priest decided to fight the Papal decision. The statue by Bernini, he said, was ill conceived: the obelisk was too heavy to be sustained by the back of the elephant and unless Bernini added some sort of support under it, the whole thing would surely collapse. Bernini was already famous for having successfully defied gravity with his sculptures and got in a terrible rage, but the Pope agreed. He just couldn’t risk a statue to fortitude collapsing for its own weakness…. So Bernini reluctantly added the support (its the big boxy part of stone under the elephant’s drape) but he also took his revenge on the Dominican priests:
the elephant faces away from the convent and proudly shows the Dominicans its big behind!
But Bernini’s hard time with this monument wasn’t over. Because of the boxy addition, the elephant is much bulkier than the Master had originally intended. The Romans are not famous for letting you off lightly in case of mistake and so soon after the unveiling of the statue they made their voice heard, calling this statue not Minerva’s elephant, but Minerva’s pig (Porcino di Minerva, where porcino means ‘little pig’), highlighting how fat and heavy it looked.
Over time, the memory of this story faded but the name remained, slowly changing from ‘porcino’ to ‘purcino’, the Roman dialect for ‘pulcino’ = chick and making the monument forever knows as Minerva’s chick.