The “Pulcino della Minerva”: an elephant in the City Centre

Piazza della Minerva a Roma e il Pulcino del BerniniUsually Rome conceals hidden treasures which aren’t so easy to see. But there are also other monuments or little art masterpieces that everyone can look. For example, very close to the Pantheon, the famous ancient Roman temple changed in a Basilica, there’s a tasteful obelisk which surmounts an…elephant!
This is the history of the “Pulcino della Minerva”, that we could translate in English like “Minerva’s chick”.

Where is it?

We stay in Piazza della Minerva, a little square surrounded by a great and graceful Basilica, named Santa Maria della Minerva, a famous hotel and other two palaces.
In order to understand the history of that crazy sculpted group set just in the centre of this square, I’m to explain something about the palace which stands just next to the Basilica.
It was one of the headquartes of the Holy Inquisition, the sacred tribunal of the Christian Church that was born during the XVI century.
The main purpose of the Inquisition was to change and “improve” the mistakes in the faith of the heretic people. Sometimes this institution used to tortured that men and women who didn’t want to change their way to believe in God.
Piazza_della_Minerva_con_il_Pulcino_e_il_Pantheon_2880_banThe palace was erected during the XIII Century for the Dominican order and in the XVI century was chosen like the place in which had to take place the trials against the heretics. Also Galileo Galilei got in it, forswearing what he claimed about the Universe… Moreover, according to the Christian theology, there was an aspect that leads the Inquisition deeds: the Knowledge. So, during the XVII century, when the Pope Innocenzo X decided to restore the square, embellishing Rome and his city centre, he called one of the best artist in that period: Bernini.

The Pope commissioned to the great master of art something which could underline how the Knowledge, mainly in that place, could lead the Church. And Bernini projected this graceful and brilliant sculpted group. The dynamic and wonderful Elephant, with the strong trunk moving by the wind, represents the Mind, while the obelisk symbolizes the Knowledge. The famous Egyptian artifact was brought to light after some excavations made in that area: it represented one of the decorations of the ancient Temple of Iside, one of the goddesses in Egypt, which stood there during the Roman Empire.

Pulcin_della_Minerva_2006_n2_banBernini took his inspiration by an arcane book, very famous in Rome, named “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili”, which translates as “Polifilo’s Dream”. In one of his dreams, Polifilo saw an elephant with an obelisck, claiming: “We need to a strong mind for support the burden of the Knwoledge”. And Bernini managed to change the dream in reality, using marble and rocks.

Bernini was used to thinking about new escamotages for his creations…but we are quite at the end of the history. Ther’s just a question. Why is the name so strange? If we look the statue maybe you could think that it is a bit heavy, mainly the elephant dressed with this caparison that looks like a curtain. Why did Bernini choose it? Because the artist had many troubles with the Pope and his way to understand and live the art. Bernini in fact wanted to insert between the elephant’s paws simply an opens space. He desidered to create a sort of feeling of lightness…but the Pope denied it and Bernini changed his project. The name takes his origin from the word “Porcino”, that means a sort of insult, which develop over the centuries in the modern “Pulcino”.