Elephant and Obelisk, a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk, designed by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Elephant and Obelisk, a statue of an elephant carrying an obelisk, designed by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

The elephant and obelisk were united by Pope Alexander VII. They stand today in Piazza della Minerva, in front of the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva and in sight of the Pantheon.

The obelisk was constructed in the sixth century BC and was brought to Rome around 30 BC. At that time, Egypt was under Rome’s control and the worship of Egyptian deities had become popular in Rome.

The area around Piazza della Minerva was originally home to the temples of Egyptian deities Isis and Serapis, and to the temple of the goddess Minerva. Later, from around 1266, that swathe of land was occupied by the Convent of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The convent, which is beside the church, later became known as the inquisition’s convent.

The obelisk was discovered during renovations at the convent in 1665, probably a legacy of the Egyptian temples. The Pope wanted to display the obelisk in the piazza and he requested ideas for a base. Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s design of an elephant won the Pope’s approval and it was sculpted by Bernini’s pupil, Ercole Ferrata.

Alexander VII’s choice may have been prompted by a novel that he owned, printed in 1499: Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (The Dream of Poliphilus or Polipho’s Strife of Love in a Dream). The book survives and the woodcut of its elephant character bears a resemblance to Bernini’s drawings.

Bernini’s original design was modified in one significant respect. To Bernini’s annoyance, the project supervisor, Dominican Friar Giuseppe Paglia, doubted the elephant’s ability to support the obelisk without reinforcement and he proposed the marble plinth on which the elephant now stands.