We turn the corner at the Pantheon and enter the Piazza della Minerva. The first thing that you notice is a small obelisk supported by an elephant.
The small obelisk had been discovered during excavations near a garden wall behind the Dominican church Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Following this sensational find, Alexander VII’s architect Kircher (Wikipedia) went to work. He wrote a book on the discovered obelisk that he believed came from a temple dedicated to Isis. The old Minerva temple of Isaeum was located underneath the church, hence the name. People believed that Isis, Minerva and Maria were connected because of a shared virtue: divine wisdom. Bernini took it upon himself to find a beautiful spot for the obelisk. Gian Lorenzo made so many designs that all of Rome could have easily been peopled with obelisks. In one of these designs, a small dog is seated at the foot of the obelisk, a clear reference to the Dominican friars.
It was a well-known pun, which went as follows: domini canes, God’s guard dogs. In one of Bernini’s sketches the obelisk is draped in oak leaves with two female figures holding it up. In yet another design the obelisk is held either by slaves or Father Time. Another drawing shows Hercules carrying the obelisk. Hercules was a universal symbol for all rulers, in this case Alexander VII. However, the eventual choice of a bearer for the obelisk was a surprising one, namely an elephant.
The inscription on the plinth on the side of the square refers to Isis and is dedicated to St Mary. On the side of the church, the reader is reminded that it takes a robust spirit, like that of an elephant, to support reliable wisdom.
(This) ancient obelisk,
monument of the Egyptian wisdom,
excavated from the ground.
Erected in the square of
Minerva and now devoted to the
Mother of God.
Dedicated to the divine wisdom
by Alexander VII in the year of Christian salvation 1667
Whoever you are, you will see in the obelisk
the sculpted figures
supported in Egypt by the elephant,
the strongest animal.
You should know
that (only) a strong mind
feeds a solid wisdom.
The word strong is a reference to the oak in the coat of arms of della Rovere and pope Alexander VII Chigi. Julius II della Rovere permitted his banker Agostino Chigi to use the oak of the della Rovere for his coat of arms.
For centuries, there has been a popular anecdote about the elephant of Bernini. To find out why the elephant is smiling, you have to look at its rear. His tail has shifted to the left and his muscles are tensed up as if he is pooping. The animal’s behind is aimed at one of the headquarters of the Dominican Order. This was the office of the inquisitors, where father Giuseppe Paglia, a Dominican monk, was working. He was the foremost rival of Bernini. This monk had ensured that Bernini’s design was modified. The original design, of which a bozzetto and a drawing still remains, had the weight of the obelisk supported only by the four legs of the elephant.
Paglia produced two designs for the obelisk. A design with six hills that refers to the coat of arms of the pope. And in the other design, the four dogs, domini canus the dogs of the Lord, carry the obelisk. Alexander VII rejected these proposals. Paglia convinced the pope to modify Bernini’s ideas. Four legs were not strong enough. There was to be a sturdy block beneath the body and the legs were to be shortened. One of Bernini’s students, Ercole Ferrata, tried his best to cover up this distasteful change with an overly-sized saddlecloth. The smiling and pooping elephant was Bernini’s way of revenge. Multiple versions with or without smile of this popular story still pass around (see roma.andreapollett). This anecdote dates back to the late 17th century. The satirist and cardinal Lodovico Sergardi released an epigram of just two lines, in which the elephant tells the Dominicans that his rear is positioned in that way to “show respect.”
This story isn’t right, just like the story about Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain, where the Rio de la Plata is covering his eyes for the repulsive facade of Borromini (see Wikipedia footnote 64 or Alberti’s Window An Art History Blog). Still, many guides in Roman will share these stories as if they were actually true.
Some weeks before the consecration of the obelisk, pope Alexander VII passed away.
“The idea of this monument draws on Bernini’s Elephant for the Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. The elephant is sculpted from black volcanic rock and has a granite obelisk mounted on top. Vaccarini stumbled upon the elephant in the city ruins following the earthquake of 1693. The elephant dates back to Roman times and likely stood on top of a spinae at the centre of a racecourse. The obelisk was also found by chance. It is originally from Egypt and has engraved symbols in honor of Isis. Vaccarini placed the black elephant on a white pedestal decorated with statues [in the Piazza del Duomo]. Then he placed the obelisk on top of the elephant, with a cross on it, to protect the city from further disaster.”
Source: Wikipedia (translated from Dutch)
We enter Rome’s one and only gothic church: Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Gothic architecture in Italy, and most certainly in Rome, is quite different from Gothic architecture north of the alps, as we will see. The facade, by the way, was built in Renaissance style.