Gianlorenzo Bernini, An Elephant with an Obelisk, 1665. Piazza della Minerva, Rome.
This is the sculpture I was going to write about last week, before I ran out of time. Like Apollo and Daphne, it is a perfect introduction to the forthcoming course which starts this Monday 6 June, Sculpture: Form, Function, Material and Memory. The blue link will take you to my diary page, which has links to information about all four talks, but I will also include the same links in this post as they become relevant. Bernini’s Elephant has always been popular with tourists. It is wonderfully charming, after all – delightfully so – and even, seen in the right way, humorous, so what’s not to like? But how many people, I wonder, have ever really stopped to think about it as a ‘sculpture’? Or, for that matter, as a ‘Work of Art’? I happen to think (surprise, surprise!) that it is one of the Roman genius’s late, great works, rather than ‘just’ a flippant amusement. Though when you come to think about it, what is wrong with amusement? It is an essential part of life. Perhaps the best way to explain why I find this work so interesting is to consider how relevant it is to the four lectures in the forthcoming series.
The first talk is called Form: Looking in Depth and will cover the shape of sculpture. Sculpture is three dimensional, the quality which supposedly distinguishes it from painting (even if many paintings have three-dimensional qualities), although not all sculptures take up space in the same way. There are relief sculptures, for example – both high and low relief – and sculptures which are fully in the round, like Apollo and Daphne last week, designed to be seen from every conceivable point of view. So how would this week’s work fit into a scale running from ‘relief’ to ‘fully in the round’? The photograph above suggests that, if nothing else, it looks very good from this side of the plinth. I can’t imagine anyone imagining that Bernini had conceived any other view as being the ‘front’ of the sculpture: this is undoubtedly the principle point of view. We can see clearly that this is an elephant standing on a plinth, supporting an Egyptian obelisk on its back. At the very top is a cross – just visible against the blue sky – which stands above a star, itself projecting from something that looks just like a jelly mould, or for that matter, the jelly itself (American readers: jello, not jam… um…). These are elements from the coat of arms of Pope Alexander VII, and suggest either that he was the patron of this work, or that the patron wanted to acknowledge his papacy. As he ruled from 1655-1667, we have a rough idea of the date of the work, although we needn’t worry: documentary evidence tells us that it was unveiled in 1667, and turned out to be Bernini’s last commission from this particular papal patron. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The elephant and obelisk stand in front of the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome, and are beautifully framed by the door of the church, the triangular pediment of the door frame, and the circular window in the façade – but only from this very specific view point directly in front of the sculpture. In front, that is, if the ‘front’ of the plinth is parallel to a supposed picture plane (as it is in this photograph). However, it is a sculpture, and you can walk round it to see it from different points of view!
But before we do that, let us think a bit more about the elephant. It is richly caparisoned, a word I hadn’t used before this week, when it was adopted in reference to a horse in Stockholm – thank you Fiona – and I assume the term can be applied to elephants as well. If not ‘caparisoned’, it does at least have a cloth over its back, which is fringed with large tassels and appliquéd with the star and jelly at the bottom centre, as well as branches bearing oak leaves and acorns on either side. This cloth must make the ‘saddle’ more comfortable. I say ‘saddle’, but I’m really not sure what to call it. As this is, presumably, an Indian elephant (it has smaller ears than its African cousins), it could even be a type of howdah. Decorated with an inscrutable mask, with eyes, nose, mouth and beard, this saddle/howdah serves to support the obelisk. The elephant looks off to its right, with its trunk curving across its right flank. In this photograph, we see again that the sculpture is beautifully framed by the doorway – which might imply that it was always meant to be here.
My main advice when looking at any sculpture – if it is freestanding – is to walk around it, and as you do so, to look for the most interesting points of view. Consider which are the better ways to look at it, and if there is a single ‘best’ viewpoint. For the elephant, the front – as discussed above – is definitely the best, but looking diagonally across the plinth we get the unavoidable feeling that the enormous beast is looking towards us. However, the carving of the eyes – making shadows which we read as pupils – suggests that the creature is looking over our heads. The trunk frames the right ear rather beautifully, and makes a nice counterpoint with the straight edge of the saddle. I’m sure that Bernini was interested in this point of view as well – although I’m not really sure what relevance it has. Sadly, this photograph shows us the damage which the poor pachyderm suffered back in 2016 – an unidentified vandal struck off the tip of its left tusk, although the severed section was abandoned nearby, and has now been skilfully reattached.
The drawing on the left (I hope it’s on the left, rather than above) shows Bernini’s design for a very similar monument – so similar, in fact, that you would think it was the same thing. But no – in place of the jelly and star, bees have alighted at the very tip of the obelisk. This is a study for a monument commissioned for the garden of Urban VIII (pope from 1623-44), and the bees have flown in from the coat of arms of the Borghese family to which Urban belonged. The drawing dates to c. 1632, but the project did not see the light of day for another 33 years, for a different patron and a different location. Bernini clearly wanted this point of view, from directly in front of the elephant (rather than from the side) to have an impact, as he designed the trunk to stick far out to our right, thus making the ‘image’ far more dramatic. The drawn elephant looks far fiercer than the docile, even friendly sculpture, and was probably intended to be trumpeting. The sculpture as executed is not as impressive from this angle, with the trunk tucked around to the side, and the position of the head, looking to our left, suggests that it might even look better if we moved in that direction, and indeed it does (as we have seen): a good sculptor can show you exactly where he wants you to be. Below the elephant, on the plinth, we see Alexander VII’s coat of arms – an oak tree top left and bottom right, and the ‘star and jelly’ top right and bottom left. Above this are the crossed keys of St Peter, and the triple tiara – the crown worn by popes until the 1960s – both of which emphasize Alexander’s status.
It was quite hard to find this photograph, and that’s simply because, apart from the elephant’s wonderfully wrinkly bottom, this view of the sculpture is just not that interesting. When leaving the church the view of the left flank of the creature is similarly unremarkable – indeed, I haven’t found a single photograph of that viewpoint. Even though this is a sculpture ‘fully in the round’ – i.e. it is a free-standing sculpture, and is carved on every side – it was not necessarily meant to be enjoyed from every point of view. There is one predominant viewpoint – the first photograph I showed you – almost as if Bernini were planning a sculpture that could just as easily have been a painting. You could argue that this is, in fact, a very (very!) high relief. It really doesn’t matter if you don’t go round the back: you don’t learn anything new, and indeed, you can guess what is there by looking at the ‘front’. This ‘frontality’ implies that the work was meant to emphasize a vista – a particular view from a particular angle – focussing the attention when the viewer approaches from a certain direction, like a punctuation mark at the end of the main approach. Bernini executed other sculptures which have a similar single, predominant viewpoint, and we will see some of them on Monday. However, there is a subsidiary viewpoint – looking the elephant fully in the face – which would imply that the viewer might be expected to approach from a different direction. It would be seen from this angle if you were to enter the Piazza della Minerva from the Piazza di Santa Chiara, but I don’t know if there is any reason why this particular approach should be favoured over any other. Maybe it’s just a result of the elephant turning round to see who’s coming.
The second talk in the series, on Monday 13 June, is called Function: What is it for? – a very good question as far as this particular sculpture is concerned. Is it simply there to amuse? If so, it certainly succeeds! But no, of course not. The point of the elephant is to support the obelisk, which was discovered in 1665 during excavations taking place near to the church. It is just one of a number of Egyptian obelisks which were taken from Egypt to Rome in the first centuries of the Roman Empire, and erected in prominent places to demonstrate Rome’s dominance over the ancient realm. After the fall of Rome, the obelisks gradually fell too, and by the 15th Century they were still there, supine among the rubble, or even buried. From the end of the 16th Century they were gradually re-erected to guide pilgrims towards the most important shrines, and Christian symbols were mounted on top of them to show the Church’s triumph over the pagan past. This obelisk was one of the last, and one of the smallest ever found, and is one of a pair: its twin is now in Urbino.
Apart from the Royal Collection drawing, others suggest that Bernini contemplated other means of holding the obelisk up – one features Old Father Time holding both a scythe and the obelisk, while in another it is Hercules who carries the weight. In the Piazza Navona, as you may well know, there is a different obelisk born aloft by the rocky structure of Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain. It may be that the Pope was given a choice as to how he wanted the Egyptian treasure borne aloft – and if he was, he chose the elephant. But why?
The image was probably inspired by a print from a rather odd but surprisingly popular book published in 1499, the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. It too shows an elephant and an obelisk, although in this case the obelisk appears to pierce the elephant. In some respects the sculpture is also related to the age-old notion of the ‘elephant and castle’ – which would bring us back to the howdah. But the simplest way of understanding it is as one thing on top of another – just like the church itself. The Christian building, dedicated to the mother of Jesus, was constructed on top of the ruins of the Roman temple of Minerva, hence the name: Santa Maria sopra Minerva – ‘Saint Mary on top of Minerva’. Minerva was goddess of war and wisdom, and it is no coincidence that the church which superseded the temple belonged to a Dominican Friary. A main aim of the Dominicans was to defend orthodox beliefs against the heretics, and consequently they were famously studious. You need the right arguments to defeat heresy, and the Dominicans saw themselves as the guardians of Christian Wisdom. Again, not by coincidence, the church is close to the original seat of ‘La Sapienza’ – ‘The Wisdom’ – the University of Rome, which was founded in 1303. So why an elephant? Well, we could assume that, as elephants never forget, they must be very wise. Or, to put it in the words of one of the inscriptions on the plinth, ‘Let any beholder of the carved images of the wisdom of Egypt on the obelisk carried by the elephant, the strongest of beasts, realize that it takes a robust mind to carry solid wisdom.’ The obelisk may stand on the elephant, but at the very top is the cross, resting on symbols which represent the Pope – and before I forget, it is not a jelly, but a stylised representation of the hills of Siena. Back in the 16th Century the Sienese banker Agostino Chigi, whose coat of arms included the six hills of Siena topped by a star, became one of the best friends and closest colleagues of Pope Julius II. As a member of the Della Rovere family, Julius’s coat of arms included an oak tree (‘rovere’ is one of the Italian words for ‘oak’), and he granted Agostino Chigi the privilege of using the Della Rovere oak on his own coat of arms. Pope Alexander VII was also a member of the Chigi family, several generations down the line, which is why the hills, stars and oak branches appear on this monument. Soon after the obelisk was discovered scholars attempted to decipher the meaning of the hieroglyphs on the obelisk, and their assumptions went unchallenged. However, even if the elephant bears witness to the knowledge of the Egyptians, the hills, star and cross are at the very top. Christian wisdom, supported by the authority of the Pope, is uppermost, just as Mary is above Minerva. And why was the church dedicated to Mary? Well, one of her titles was sedes sapientiae – ‘the seat of wisdom’ – the name given to Solomon’s throne (Solomon himself was famed for his wisdom). As the Christ Child sat upon Mary’s lap, she was, herself, his throne – sedes sapientiae.
In the third talk, Material: Method and Meaning we will explore the very stuff from which sculpture is made. In this case there are at least three materials – the marble from which the elephant is carved, the granite of the obelisk, and the bronze of the cross and Chigi symbols. We will also discuss how sculptures are made, explaining the techniques of casting bronze, and of carving marble, for example. We will also discuss the advantages and limitations of the materials. It is unlikely that the elephant’s trunk would ever have projected as dramatically as the drawing suggests – it would be all too likely to break off. From the end view of the finished version, you can just see how the trunk as carved is actually attached to the saddle, although this join is disguised from the ‘front’. As it happens, it was not Bernini himself who did the hard work. He left the carving of the elephant to one of his main assistants, Ercole Ferrata, and, while we’re thinking about it, it was other people who dug up the obelisk. A fascinating way of thinking about this monument is that, as well as the traditional techniques of carving and casting, it also uses ideas associated with sculpture at the beginning of the 20th Century. Constructivism, for example, made sculptures by ‘constructing’ them from separate, pre-existing elements, precisely what has happened here. And then there was a new genre of sculpture, the ‘readymade’, invented by Marcel Duchamp when took objects from the everyday world (the most famous being a urinal) and gave them a new context. That is exactly what Bernini has done here with the obelisk. In the same talk (no. 3) we will also consider the reasons for using these materials: what does the use of marble, granite, or bronze ‘mean’? I’ll leave you to worry about that for a couple of weeks, but, as just one suggestion, granite is a remarkably durable stone, and so can, in itself, imply permanence and therefore power. With so much to cover, it’s going to be a busy week!
Finally, the fourth talk is called Memory: Something to remember. As it happens, even though elephants never forget, I will not be referring to this sculpture. The talk will really be concerned with portraiture: sculpture as a means of remembering those who are not present, whether in terms of those living or effigies of the departed on funerary monuments. Even if Bernini might have based his work on drawings of a real elephant which came to ROme in 1630, this could never be considered a portrait. However, I’ll let you know more about that talk another day. In the meantime, I hope you won’t forget the elephant, and can join me Looking in Depth on Monday.
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