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Obelisk of the Minerva (Minerveo)

Obelisco della Minerva (Minerveo)

L’Obelisco della Minerva: la storia curiosa di un elefante di pietra al centro dell’incantevole piazza della Minerva.

In the centre of the enchanting Piazza della Minerva stands this small red granite obelisk dating back to the 6th century BC, originally located near the Iseo Campense, the shrine devoted to Isis and her spouse Serapis in the Campus Martius.

After falling down, the obelisk remained hidden in the ground until 1665, when it was accidentally found by some Dominican friars during work on the foundations of the wall enclosing the garden of the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

The obelisk is only about 5.5 metres high, but reaches 12 metres with the cross and the famous elephant-shaped base designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini and executed in 1667 by his apprentice Ercole Ferrata.

The Minerva Obelisk: the curious story of a stone elephant

"And it cries out, with its trunk turned backwards, Dominican friars, here you stand!".

Through Rome's most famous little elephant, Bernini manifests all his frustration in the curious story that accompanied the construction of one of the most beloved monumental complexes for Romans and tourists alike.

Pope Alexander VII Chigi decided to place it in front of the church of the Dominican fathers and for this he evaluated several proposals that would allow him to choose the most suitable base to support it.

One of the projects presented was that of the Dominican friar Domenico Paglia: the monument was to rest on six small hills - recalling the coat of arms of the Chigi family, but it might have appeared too self-celebratory.

The Pontiff wanted a work that would rather recall the exaltation of Divine Wisdom: 'Alexander VII dedicated this ancient obelisk, a monument to the Egyptian Athena, unearthed and placed in the square, once of Minerva now of the Mother of God, in the year of Salvation, 1667.' He therefore chose the design of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the greatest architect and sculptor of Baroque Rome, who proposed the construction of a statue in the shape of an elephant. The animal was supposed to symbolise strength, also evoked by the inscription on the plinth, which reads: 'Anyone who observes the sculpted images of Egyptian wisdom on the obelisk carried by the elephant, the strongest of beasts, realises that it takes a strong mind to carry a solid wisdom.'

Envy in the form of a small elephant: the secret of Bernini and the Obelisk

The Dominicans, resentful of the Pope's choice, openly criticised Bernini: according to them, the little elephant he had designed would have collapsed under the weight of the huge obelisk, as it had no central support. The artist tenaciously opposed the construction of an element that would have ruined the aesthetics of the composition, but eventually had to give in to the Pope's insistence. The filling was placed under the belly of the elephant, but it had to be camouflaged. Bernini then sculpted a very elaborate caparison which, however, considerably weighed down the silhouette of the pachyderm, making it appear stocky and somewhat ungainly.

Bernini's impertinent greeting: when Art takes revenge

The artist, then, to take revenge for the interference of the Dominicans who had ruined his project, directed the animal's voluminous hindquarters towards their convent; with its tail slightly to one side and the backward movement of its trunk, has been impertinently greeting them ever since.

The obelisk was unveiled to the public on 11 July 1667, but Pope Alexander VII was unable to attend the ceremony, having died on 22 May.

The Minerva Chick: a nickname that stands the test of time

The monument soon became the target of the biting humour of the Romans, who affectionately nicknamed it 'Minerva's Piglet' because of its stocky appearance, which resembled that of a baby pig.

In time, the cute nickname changed to the expression 'purcino', a Roman dialect form for 'chick', hence 'Pulcino della Minerva', the name by which it is still called today.

The must-see treasures around the Elephantine

You are in the heart of Rome's Historic Centre, so you are spoilt for choice: you can continue your walk by heading towards the Pantheon and its millenary history, or towards the church of Sant'Eustachio, topped by the characteristic stag's head.

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Photo: Redazione Turismo Roma

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Obelisco Minerveo, Piazza della Minerva
Piazza della Minerva
41° 53' 53.2968" N, 12° 28' 39.9216" E


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