Unexpected Rome: Bernini’s Elephant

kid friendly piazza in Rome

This year, most of the businesses that are closing for August have shuttered their doors from the 7th until the 28th.

Luckily, Rome is essentially one giant open air museum, with something new to see around every corner.

Bernini Elephant in Rome

One of my favorite little squares in Rome is Piazza della Minerva, home to Bernini’s elephant.

Most likely sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s assistant, the charming marble pachyderm is topped with an Egyptian obelisk.

Bernini Elephant by Pantheon

What do elephants have to do with Rome?

The ancient Romans used them in the Punic Wars, supporting the campaigns of the growing empire.

However, by Bernini’s time, elephants were decidedly less common in the Eternal City.  In 1630, Bernini was probably in the crowd to see the first elephant to have visited Rome in more that 100 years.

This study likely inspired him to create this statue in 1667.

Statue of Elephant in Rome

Bernini had sketched elephants earlier and intended to create a statue to be displayed in the Barberini Gardens, shadowed by leafy trees.

However, when the friars of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva were digging a new foundation in 1665, they uncovered an obelisk.

The Pope commissioned Bernini to create a monument for the ancient Egyptian obelisk, and Bernini simply could not get the elephant out of his head.

And so, the marble animal became the base for the pagan symbol in front of the church whose Dominicans had discovered the antiquity.

Oh, Rome.

What a perfect mishmash.

Bernini Elephant statue in Rome

There are rumors that Bernini had a bit of fun with the elephant’s positioning, making sure the butt faced the home of a rival. Whenever the family looked out on to the square, they were sure the see the bottom staring back at them.

I love this sweet elephant, who was cleaned and restored about two years ago.

You can find him a few steps behind the Pantheon.

(For more on the history of the sculpture, check here).

10 thoughts on “Unexpected Rome: Bernini’s Elephant

  1. arabesque says:

    i distinctively remembered this piazza, its a small one tucked at the back of pantheon,
    it was almost night time when we got to this church and was immediately drawn by this unusual obelisk and an elephant which doesn’t match with Rome’s architectural details. ^0^
    i thought to myself, what’s this monument doing here? well, thanks to your post ! i now know the reason to it. ^0^

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  4. Claudia Stanley says:

    This is one of my fav places in Rome . First of all congratulations on your blog Im a follower.
    After my mum passed away I was in Rome wondering around and looking for a neckless with an elephant as she was a fan of this beautiful animals. Around the Pantheon there was a lady selling jewellery and I almost bought a neckless but I wasnt very sure about the ones she had so I didnt get any. But as I turned the corner I discovered Bernini’s Elefantino on the Piazza! It was a very heart warming experience. Then I went into the Sopra Minerva Church and lit a candle on the Franciscanos Altar. The caretaker saw me and I explained that my great grandmother lived near a Franciscan mision in Buenos AiresArgentina. So he gifted me a little medal that he had on his pocket and that I now wear on a neckless.
    I am in Rome at the end of March and will be back to visit , best wishes from Devon in England

  5. Lonni says:

    I love that it is by the church with Michaelangelo’s statue of Christ standing triumphant with the cross— and which is just steps from the grave of Fra Angelico!

  6. Victor Janulaitis says:

    I lived almost two years in Rome, often sketching in watercolours. It took me sometime to discover the Elefantino, but like others, I came under his spell. It’s a charming statue, which I painted on four separate occasions, more than any other known sight in Rome. It’s not just the statue itself, but it’s unusual location, the contrast with the nearby Pantheon and the surprise to find out it was designed by Bernini, so well known for many of his other works.

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