Last week, one of my favourite monuments in Roma was vandalized. Gianlorenzo Bernini’s Elefantino had one of his zanne (tusks) broken off by unidentified vandals. I think I called them ‘stronzi maleducati’ in my instagram post. I was being polite. A Spanish couple found the broken piece and reported it to the authorities. The ‘stone surgeons’ have reattached the zanna (ZAHN·nah) and reinforced it with wooden splints. A nice €2000 bit of plastic surgery. The process is shown in this video. Along with everyone in Roma, I’m so glad my favourite little pachyderm is on the mend that I had to write a post about him.
In 1665, the Dominican friars of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva found a 5.5 m Egyptian Obelisk while working in their garden. It is one of 13 in Roma. For some reason, Pope Alexander VII decided to install it in the Piazza outside the church, Piazza della Minerva. To design a base to support the obelisk, he had architects put in their proposals for the commission. One of the Dominican friars, Domenico Paglia put in a horrendous proposal which involved mounting the obelisk on 6 small hills, with a dog at each corner. The 6 hills are part of the Pope’s family coat of arms, and dogs the symbol of the Dominicans, referring to their fidelity. The word Dominican comes from ‘Dominis canis’ meaning dogs of the Lord.
Luckily, the Pope chose Bernini’s proposal to mount the obelisk on the back of an elephant, a symbol of strength. Bernini was inspired by a woodcut in a 1499 book by Francesco Colonna. Padre Paglia was very unhappy that his design was not chosen. He convinced the Pope that Bernini’s design was flawed and would not be supportive unless a cube was sculpted under the elephant’s belly to support the obelisk.
Bernini did not like this suggestion. He wanted his elephant to stand on its four legs, but he had no choice in the matter. He tried to hide the extra marble by adding an ornate, floor length gualdrappa or saddle blanket on the elephant’s back. This had the effect of making him look pudgy and stout like a baby elephant rather than strong and fierce. When the statue was installed in 1667, Romans referred to it as ‘Il Porcino della Minerva’ or ‘Minerva’s piglet’ because it had the dimensions of a maialetto more than an elephant. This eventually morphed into ‘Pulcino’ or ‘Purcino’ which means chick in italiano and in dialetto Romano. Most monuments in Roma have a nickname.
Bernini did get revenge on Padre Paglia. There is a reason Elefantino’s head is turned away from the church with a cute mischievous grin. Bernini had the statue placed with its rear facing the Dominican monastery. His muscles seem tensed and his tail is shifted to the left, exposing his bum as if he is about to drop a load! Bernini was also protesting the way Galileo was treated here, where he was interrogated by the Inquisition in 1633. I don’t know if the second point is true or just Leggenda Metropolitana dell’ 700 – 17th Century urban legend!