An Elephant in Rome Bernini, the Pope and the making of the Eternal City

An Elephant in Rome Bernini, the Pope and the making of the Eternal City

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Loyd Grossman is a Renaissance man in a Baroque world. Entrepreneur, broadcaster, TV presenter, musician and author, his main interest is in the arts, and having written one book on the American painter Benjamin West, he has turned his attention to Rome, with his opening lines reading, ‘Rome is a city of statues. Statues of saints, popes, emperors, angels, gods and heroes.’ There are hundreds of them across La Città Eterna, the Eternal City, and there are also 900 churches and an astonishing 280 fountains. Grossman starts his journey through the City with one of the most idiosyncratic statues, that of a three-hundred-year-old elephant carrying a three-thousand-year-old obelisk on its back in front of the mediaeval church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, virtually in the shadow of the Pantheon. It was put together by the greatest artist living in Rome at the time, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, who dominated the art scene in Europe in an age which boasted such big hitters as Rubens, Rembrandt and Velázquez, so the competition was fierce. Bernini’s most important client was the pope, or whichever pope happened to be in office at the time, and there were ten reigns during his lifetime. The most important to him was Alexander VII, who came to power in 1655 when Bernini was fifty-seven and with whom he developed a strong bond. He had already been knighted by Pope Gregory XV when he was only twenty-three, and the title “Cavaliere” ensured him a steady and lucrative supply of commissions, both from the church and such patrons as Francesco d’Este, the Duke of Modena, who had Bernini carve him a portrait bust, and paid him handsomely for it.

Bernini was not just a sculptor, painter, architect and poet, he was, as described by John Evelyn, giving ‘a public opera, wherein he painted the scenes, cut the statues, invented the engines, composed the music, writ the comedy, and built the theatre.’ He was feted by Louis XIV of France, who wanted to humiliate Alexander and the Catholic Church in Rome and add Europe’s most celebrated artist to his ‘magnificence and splendour.’ The trip to Paris was not a great success, with his drawings for the Louvre being rejected by Colbert, the King’s first minister and fixer-in-chief. His large equestrian statue of Louis was hated by the King, although it would be hard not to admire the skill of Bernini, whose magisterial, swirling portrait bust is a masterclass in marble sculpting and can be seen at Versailles. Back in Rome, Bernini continued to work on the Minerva Elephant and Obelisk, which was completed just after the death of Alexander VII in 1667.

Rome had become obsessed with ancient Egyptian obelisks, from the time when they conquered Egypt in 30 BC, and Augustus transported two obelisks to Rome. The Minerva obelisk was taken to Rome in the Third Century by Emperor Diacletian, and others followed. The Vatican obelisk was the largest; a monster, 32 meters high, which was re-sited at the request of Sixtus V by Roman engineering genius Dominico Fontana to a new location in front of the basilica, where it remains today, the largest standing obelisk in the world. Fontana was then asked to move three more obelisks to prominent positions on the pilgrims’ routes around the City. Today, there are thirteen standing obelisks in Rome, eight dating back to ancient Egypt and five made to order in Egypt for the ancient Romans. They had a massive propaganda value as well as defining a network of roads, making it easier for pilgrims and visitors to navigate the Holy City. Transformed into Christian monuments, they trumpeted the triumph of the Church over the pagan Roman Empire. The scale of these monoliths is staggering, and Grossman explains the complexities of quarrying, carving and then transporting them in relatable terms; a 450 ton Aswan granite obelisk is about the same weight as a fully loaded jumbo jet, and yet they were hauled across land to specially-constructed vessels docked on the Nile, sailed across the Mediterranean to Ostia, Rome’s port, and then carted sixteen miles to the City, where they were re-erected. Pliny the Elder wrote that ‘an obelisk is a symbolic representation of the sun’s rays, and this is the Egyptian word for it.’ Our own word comes from the Greek obeliskos, which rather mundanely, translates as a ‘meat skewer’.

Bernini may have overseen the design of the Minerva Elephant, but the actual sculptor was Ercole Ferrata. It was not unusual for artists to raise their status from craftsmen to intellectual workers from the Renaissance onwards, and Bernini was no exception, and he would have been unable to realise such a volume of work without help from fellow sculptors and artists, whom he was reluctant to acknowledge. 

Grossman has written a delightful book in a most approachable manner, as though he were walking alongside and talking in one’s ear, as one was being taken on a guided tour of the City. All the names, dates and buildings are there, listed not in a dry, textbook way, but placed in a context that celebrates the ever-changing face of Baroque Rome.

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