In 1665 an ancient Egyptian obelisk was unearthed in the garden of the Dominican church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.
The reigning pope, Alexander VII (r. 1655-67), wanted the obelisk to be erected in the piazza outside the church and Rome's most famous sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680), was asked to design a suitable base. He came up with the idea of an elephant!
It seems that the great man may have been inspired by a print he had seen in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, one of the most curious books ever written. The author is said to have been Francesco Colonna and the book was printed (1499) in Venice by Aldo Manuzio.
Bernini may have designed the elephant, but the actual carving of the animal seems to have been done by Ercole Ferrata (1610-86). Sadly, the pope did not live to see the statue being unveiled to the public on July 11th, 1667, having died on May 22nd.
The relationship between the elephant and the obelisk, which the pope wanted to be seen as a symbol of divine knowledge, is explained by the two inscriptions on the pedestal, which Alexander VII is thought to have composed himself.
VETEREM OBELISCVM/PALLADIS AEGYPTIAE MONVMENTVM/E TELLVRE ERVTUM
IBI IN MINERVAE OLIM/NVNC DEIPARAE GENITRICIS/TORO ERECTVM/DIVINAE SAPIENTIAE/ALEXANDER VII DEDICAVIT/ANNO SAL MDCLXVII (Alexander VII dedicated to the ancient wisdom this ancient obelisk a monument of the Egyptian Athena, unearthed from the ground and set up in this square, once Minerva's now belonging to the Mother of God, the year of salvation 1667).
SAPIENTIS AEGYPTI/INSCVLPTAS OBELISCO FIGVRAS/AB ELEPHANTO/BELLVARUM FORTISSIMA/GESTARI QVISQVIS HIC VIDES/DOCVMENTVM INTELLIGE/ROBVSTAE MENTIS ESSE/SOLIDAM SAPIENTIAM SVSTINERE (You, whoever you are, who see that the figures of wise Egypt engraved on the obelisk are borne by the elephant, strongest of creatures, understand it as proof that to uphold sacred wisdom is the part of the sturdy mind).
The elephant is known locally as Minerva's Chick (Pulcino della Minerva).
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private and
small-group walking tours
Search Walks in Rome: