In 1665 an ancient Egyptian obelisk was unearthed in the cloister 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 base, which Alexander VII is thought to have composed himself.
The elephant is known locally as the Pulcino della Minerva (Minerva's Chick).
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My name is David Lown and I am an art historian, writer and guide