View Article: Bernini's Elephant Obelisk
University of Washington Honors Program in Rome

Bernini's Elephant Obelisk
Section One 1 of 2

  Historical Background of the Site or Topic
Bernini's Elephant Obelisk
From the 15th novel about Poliphilo and the Elephant obelisk he encounters
In 1665, a five and a half meter tall obelisk inscribed with Egyptian
hieroglyphics was found in the garden on the Dominican monastery. Pope Alexander VII decided to have the obelisk displayed in front on the monastery. Father Domenico Paglia, who was also an architect, proposed one design. His design had the obelisk resting over six hills, a symbol of Pope Alexander VII's family name. Also, there was a dog in each corner for the dogs are a sign of the Dominican priests. In Latin Domini canes means the Lord's dogs. However, the Pope rejected the idea of Father Domenico Paglia because he wanted the obelisk to be a symbol of knowledge.

Pope Alexander VII asked Bernini to submit a design. Bernini chose an elephant as a symbol of strength. The elephant design was inspired by the 15th century novel, “Poliphil's Dream of the Love Battle,” in which Polophil encountered an elephant made of stone carrying an obelisk. The pictures in the book bare a striking resemblance to Berini's design. The final product was an obelisk resting on the elephant's legs. But Father Paglia argued against the design, stating that it was common knowledge that “no weight should rest vertically above an empty space, as it would not be steady or long-lasting.” Father Paglia insisted that a cube be inserted under the elephant's belly. Bernini opposed any modification; by this time, he has already built the Fountain of the Rivers, which can be found in Piazza Navona and knew the statement to be false. But, Bernini wasforced to change his original design, though he tried to add a saddlecloth to disguise and decorate the cube. Bernini was never quite happy with the final product and Romans began referring to it as the “Porcino Della Minerva,” or Minerva's pig. However, with the variation in Roman dialects the elephant began to be called “Puhcino Della Minerva” or Minerva's chicken.

In the end, Bernini had his revenge: he pointed the elephant's behind towards the monastery and tail is pointing slightly to the left, in salutation.
Section Two 2 of 2