This unusual and endearing statue of elephant carrying an obelisk tells an interesting tale of one of the cities greatest Baroque architects and sculptors Gian Lorenzo Bernini. Bernini has been seen by many art historians as the natural successor to Michelangelo with his ability to breath life and character into his sculptures. His work can be seen across Rome in many locations from the architecture of Piazza San Pietro, a private collection in the Borgasie Gallery and various fountains throughout Rome including the fountain of the four rivers in Piazza Navona.

Elephant of Rome

Elephant of Rome

The story of Puhcino Della Minerva (chick of Minerva) begins with the discovery of the obelisk on its back in the grounds of the nearby Dominican monastery during building work in 1655. The obelisk is the smallest (c. 5m) of the Egyptian obelisks in Rome, it is thought to have original been made in Egypt during the reign of Pharaoh Apries (589-570 B.C.) and brought to Rome by Emperor Diocletain (284 to 305 A.D.).

Pope Alexander VII on discovery of the statue decided he wanted to have it displayed outside Dominican Monastery where it was found. He initially asked Father Domenico Paglia who was also an architect for a design but rejected it and instead asked Bernini. Although Bernini came up with several designs the one with the elephant was chosen as it symbolically represented strength and knowledge, which is why on the sides of the plythn the inscription can be found which reads “a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge”.

The design bares a strong resemblance to an illustration in a popular book of the time “ Poliphils’ dream of the love battle” which was one of the first books to be printed in Italy and is famed for the quality of its illustrations. Father Paglia upset with the rejection of his design insisted that block be placed under the body of the elephant to help support the weight. Bernini was apparently furious at this as he had already demonstrated that free standing objects could support large weights and tried to disguise the block with a saddle cloth.

He was never happy with the result and the resulting squashed appearance that it gave the elephant which later saw it branded Porcinco Della Minerva ( the Pig of Minerva ). To get his revenge Bernini situated the posterior of the elephant in front of the entrance to the Dominican monastery and flicked the sculpted tail of the elephant to one side so that Father Paglia would be greeted with a lude salute whenever he left the monastery.

How the name of the statue evolved from pig to chicken is matter of folklore with some stories claiming it was the short height of the obelisk,others that it was an obscure reference to the major charity of the Dominicans who assisted young women needing dowries during a parade through the piazza each year. A more sombre explanation is the harsh Roman dialect that was spoken at the same saw the word mutate from Porcinco to Puhcino.

The statue can be found in front of the Basilica of St. Mary above Minerva which is in the Piazza della Minerva, just behind the Pantheon, in the Campus Martius (Campo Marzio) quarter.