Bernini’s Elefantino

September 22, 2011 / Art & Archaeology
Rome, Lazio
Perhaps Rome’s most smile inducing sculpture . . it’s hard not to when walking through Piazza della Minerva, a small intimate square just off of the Pantheon.

In the mid-17th century, Pope Alexander the VII commissioned Bernini to create a base for the Egyptian obelisk that had just been found in the adjacent convent’s garden (originally site of a temple dedicated to Isis, not Minerva even though the name stuck). He decided that the theme of the sculpture should be “divine wisdom”, hence Bernini’s choice of an elephant. The Pope also provided the Latin inscription for the base, which translated reads: “Whoever you may be who sees the figures (hieroglyphics) sculpted by the wise Egyptian on the obelisk supported by the elephant, strongest of animals, know that upholding solid wisdom requires a robust mind.”

This little elephant with his oversized trunk, wrinkled skin, pudgy behind, and forever loaded with the 15 foot obelisk on his back . . fa tenerezza. This Italian term roughly means “induces feelings of tenderness”. Watch the faces of people walking by . . . they are all smiling, as are you.


by GB Bernardini

Editor, Italian Notebook

11 Responses to “Bernini’s Elefantino”

  1. Gale in CT

    Fascinating on many levels. First, I was struck by the fact that a 17th century Pope would elevate a pagan symbol to such importance; and, second, that he would write such a beautiful inscription lauding the wisdom of the hieroglyphs; and third, I wonder what the hieroglyphs actually translate to? I love this sculpture. Thanks for sharing.

  2. giuseppe spano (jojo)
    giuseppe spano (jojo)

    When in Rome I was sure to see this wonderful sculpt, it brought smiles and laughter to me and my wife Gioia. I have come to realize that many Italians love elephants! Why is that? I for one have over 200 elephants (that is elephant sculpts,wood cuts etc.) in my collection. Gioia tells me I’m pazzo…perheps!

  3. The answer to the question about elephants is that they are also good luck symbols and we all could use a little good luck.

  4. giuseppe–prehistoric Italy and Sicily were home to many species of elephants, in fact in Sicily the skeletons of the rare pygmy elephant have been recently excavated. Perhaps your ancient cavemen ancestors tamed these elephants and the gene remains in your own bloodline!

  5. Gian Banchero

    The first time I saw the Elefantino I was walking through the piazza deep in thought, I looked up, and low and behold there was an elephant looking at me… I about jumped out of my shoes. This memory is my reason for always smiling when I see Elefantino! Thanks…

  6. We stayed at the grand hotel delaminerve which is next to this obelisk. I highly recommend it

  7. Joan Schmelzle

    One of my favorite little “greats” of Rome. I’m glad you included a picture with at least a few of the wrinkles on his “pudgy little behind”!

  8. Since it was supporting such weight, the stone is solid beneath the animal’s belly, camoflaged by the draped blanket.


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