Avventure Channel Travel Articles

The Bird and the Elephant

So he chiseled his revenge into Nellie. (The elephant… I call her Nellie) Can you spot it?

Next to the mighty Pantheon, to the left as you look at it, is a little plaza called Piazza della Minerva. It is home to the Hotel Minerva (with its fabulous roof terrace – a perfect place for sundowners and apperitivo in the evenings) and Rome’s most magnificent Gothic Church, “Santa Maria sopra Minerva” which contains a statue of Christ by the mighty Michelangelo. The name means Saint Mary above Minerva (it is a Catholic church dedicated to the Virgin Mary built directly on top of an ancient Pagan temple to Minerva, the goddess of war and wisdom and one of Imperial Rome’s three state gods. Why are there SO many churches in Rome? In my last post I mentioned that there is a flood marker from 1870 in Piazza Navona. The regular flooding of the Tiber river is just ONE of the reasons that Rome was built layer upon layer, why two thirds of the city lies beneath your feet… Another major reason is a concept called Damnation of the Memory or Damnatiae Memoriae. For more on what this dramatic statement means, have a listen to my podcast on it! But for now suffice it to say that many of Rome’s 913 churches were built ON TOP of pagan temples in an effort to wipe out the memory of paganism.)

In the centre of the piazza is an obelisk mounted on Bernini’s statue of an elephant.

This little piazza would be easy to miss on your standard 2.5 hour walking tour of the historical centre of Rome, and what a crying shame that is.

Bernini was Rome’s major Baroque architect. (Born in 1598 and died 81 years later). He was famous for being something of a socialite too – certainly he got on far better with the majority of his rich patrons than he predecessor, the famously misanthropic Michelangelo. But like all artists and architects of his era Bernini was not above petty squabbles – he had an enormous ego and fragile sense of pride, as did so many maestros. We call them divas today.

The Jesuit order of priests commissioned Bernini to build a stand for the obelisk, and his first elephant sculpture had nothing under her belly… the Jesuits ridiculed the design, saying that there was simply no way it would support the heavy obelisk. Bernini was forced to fill in the empty space with cement. It didn’t go down well.

Now, to explain the layout and the significance of the elephant’s positioning: the Jesuit offices formed the third part of the piazza. The elephant is standing with her bottom facing the Jesuits, her tail to one side. Her trunk, is rather elongated and reaches behind her. The trunk clearly flips up, and in so doing, makes an unmistakably rude gesture at the holy fathers who’d dared insult Bernini’s design. She is literally flipping them the bird…

She has also recently undergone a thorough clean, so she is nice and bright and white and sparkling again – and definitely doesn’t look her age!