Friday, September 14, 2012

Bernini's Little Elephant

Today's photos:


1.    Il pulcin stands directly in front of the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.

2.    Another view of the Bernini masterpiece shows part of the basilica to your right and the former Benedictine monastery to your left.

3.    The coat of arms of Alexander VII Chigi who commissioned the work from Bernini.

4.    One of the two Latin inscriptions on the base.

5.    Here's the view of il pulcin which the monks had from their monastery!

6.    In my opinion he really is smiling!




If you have ever walked from Largo Argentina, the site of the assassination of Julius Caesar, to the Pantheon, you probably passed right in front of the basilica of Santa Maria sopra Minerva which was built over a Roman temple of the pagan goddess Minerva.  If this jewel of a medieval Dominican church did not catch your eye, certainly the sculpture group in the piazza in front of the church did. It is a small, marble elephant (photos 1 & 2) which stands on a high base and sports a fancy-looking saddle-like drapery across its back. On the sides of the drapery and on the base of the monument you see the coat of arms of Alexander VII Chigi (1655-1667) (photo 3) for whom the monument was made. The elephant is supporting an  obelisk which was once in an Egyptian temple of the goddess Isis in this area. The obelisk dates back to the sixth century B.C. So we have a monument here in a spot associated first with Isis, then Minerva and now the Virgin Mary.  This is one of the most photographed items in the city, as indeed it should be, since it was designed by none other than Gian Lorenzo Bernini, although it was sculpted by Ercole Ferrata in 1667 at the request of the Chigi pope.



A curiosity


As they often do, the Romans have invented a nickname for the little elephant, il pulcin (the chick), presumably, one would think, because of its small size compared to the size of an adult elephant. That, however, is not the true origin of the nickname, despite what I have heard many a guide proclaim. The Romans of the seventeenth century thought the little creature looked more like a fat, baby pig, so they began to refer to it as il porcin (the little pig). The word porcin somehow corrupted over the centuries to pulcin, as the little guy is commonly called today.


This is one of Bernini's most famous and well-known works, but it seems that he himself cared little for it.  He did not include it on a list of his works which he drew up near the end of his career.  The fact is that as he grew older, Bernini became more and more critical of his own works.  He even came to be dissatisfied with the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, created by him about ten years before the elephant.  Like the elephant, the fountain also features an Egyptian obelisk.  It seems impossible to us that the artist would be dissatisfied with either of these two sculptures. 


A curiosity


A story is told that one day Bernini was being driven in his carriage through Piazza Navona. As the carriage approached his famous fountain in the center of the piazza, he closed the curtains of the carriage and exclaimed: O come mi vergogno di haver operato così male!  "How ashamed I am to have done so poorly"!


It seems that Bernini and Alexander VII collaborated on the unusual subject matter of the sculpture, an elephant supporting an Egyptian obelisk. Most seventeenth-century Romans had never seen a live elephant.  It was, in fact, considered a strange and curious animal. A legend says that the pope himself had been fascinated with the animal ever since he received a real one as a gift from the king of Portugal. This gift supposedly led the pontiff to impose on Bernini the subject matter for the sculpture.


A curiosity


This story of the gift of an elephant to Alexander VII is used to explain yet another traditional tale, still related to Bernini's sculpture.  When the sculpture was finished, the pope decreed several days of celebration for its inauguration.  Because the gift of the real elephant was from the king of Portugal, Alexander, as a way of thanking the king, declared that all Portuguese citizens would have free entrance into all Roman drinking establishments for the duration of the inaugural celebrations. 


This is one explanation given for the Italian expression fare il portoghese ("to sneak into a place without buying a ticket").  In English we might call it "to be a gatecrasher". In any case the expression is still used today primarily to mean a person who rides a public bus or train without buying a ticket.  However, the real explanation of the expression goes back to the eighteenth century.  The Portuguese ambassador to Italy sponsored a performance at the Teatro Argentina to which all Portuguese citizens were invited to attend free of charge.  All they had to do was declare themselves Portuguese and they entered without buying a ticket.


After that little diversion, let's return to Bernini's elephant. Most people miss the the cleverness of the Latin inscriptions on the sides of the base. On the side which faces the church, we read the following words which the pope himself is said to have composed (photo 4).











You, whoever you are, who see that the figures of wise Egypt sculpted on the obelisk are being carried by an elephant, the strongest of beasts, understand that it is proof of a strong mind  to sustain solid wisdom.


The second inscription, also composed by the pontiff, is on the side of the base opposite the church.  In this one he makes reference to the successive association of this area with Isis (Egyptian Athena), Minerva and the Virgin Mary.












Alexander VII, in the year of Salvation 1667, dedicated to the divine wisdom this ancient obelisk, a monument to Egyptian Athena, unearthed from the ground and set up in the square once Minerva's, now belonging to the Mother of God.


A curiosity


There is a legendary story told about the position of the elephant, a somewhat irreverent account which mocks the Dominican monks who lived in the monastery next to the church.  You will notice that the elephant is showing his backside to the monastery (photo 5) and at the same time waving his extra-long trunk in the direction of the monks as if to say: Take that!  It also appears to me that the little guy has a twinkle in his eyes and a faint smile on his face, as if he were enjoying his little joke (photo 6)!


The Romans have really taken a liking to il pulcin, and of course it is loved also by the many tourists who delight in being photographed in front of it.  But it seems that the Americans in particular have a special feeling for the elephant as the following two curious incidents illustrate.


In 1946, during the allied administration of the city of Rome after the War, an officer of the American occupation troops was so "taken" by the little elephant that he decided to "take it", literally, back to the U.S! Never mind that small models of the sculpture were sold in souvenir shops all over the city. This guy wanted to bring the real thing back home with him! He gathered some of his soldiers and sent them with an army truck to dismantle the elephant and haul it away. Fortunately, the doorman of a nearby building happened to notice what was going on. He gave the alarm, and the soldiers fled leaving the sculpture, fortunately, completely intact and unharmed.


But in a kind of indirect way, il pulcin really did get to the U.S. many years later, during the presidential election campaign of 2008 featuring democrat Barack Obama and republican John McCain.  The NIAF (National Italian American Foundation), a very large and powerful organization representing Italian-American citizens, wanted to honor the two candidates with a symbol which represented the historic and cultural traditions of Rome.  Of all the monuments available to them, the members chose Bernini's little elephant and decided to make a miniature copy of it to present to both presidential candidates.  Time out! The elephant, they were reminded, is the symbol of the Republican party!  It wouldn't do to present such a thing to the democratic candidate.  As everybody knows, the symbol of the Democratic party is the donkey.  What were they to do?  There was no monument in Rome in the form of a donkey to present to Obama!  Well, enter good, old-fashioned American initiative, know-how and sense of humor all rolled into one. The faithful reproduction of Bernini's elephant was presented to John McCain. Obama received the same replica, except that the elephant was replaced with a donkey and the drapery on its back was colored red, white and blue!


Lillemor Brink said...

Thank you for this wonderful presentation!

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