The Obelisk of the Minerva and the allegory from a mysterious book of the Renaissance

Rome can boast the highest number of obelisks in the world. They’re eighteen in all and mostly started to adorn the capital of the Roman Empire since the times of the princeps Augustus. One of them stands out: the Obelisk of the Minerva is carried on the back of a marble elephant. This characteristic monument is believed to draw its inspiration from one of the most mysterious books of Italian Renaissance.

The Obelisco della Minerva

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ercole Ferrata (?), Elephant and Obelisk viewed from the front, 1667, marble, Rome, piazza della Minerva.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ercole Ferrata (?), Elephant and Obelisk viewed from the front, 1667, marble, Rome, piazza della Minerva.

In the homonym piazza of chiesa di Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the so-called “Obelisco della Minerva” was probably executed by Ercole Ferrata and inaugurated in 1667, during the pontificate of Alessandro VII, in order to give a suitable placement to an Egyptian obelisk came to light two years earlier among the ruins of the near Iseo Campense, near S. Macuto. [1] The same pope wanted the monument to be fulfilled, bearing his coat of arm and dedicated to the “Divinae Sapientiae” (Divine Wisdom), as testified by the epigraphy. [2] 

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The design of the monument was however invented by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, as attested by some drawings conserved at the Windsor Castle, UK and the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana together with a scale model made of terracotta, coming from the Palazzo Barberini (now belonging to the Orsini collection in Florence). [3] An analogous sculpture group was originally commissioned to the artist, in fact, by the cardinal Francesco Barberini for his palace and the project was intended for another obelisk, found in 1632 and owned by the cardinal. [2] 

Bernini’s invention was variously dated and interpreted by scholars. For example, Gnoli dated the drawings by Bernini to the years 1666-1667 after his return from France, when the sculpture was actually created. The same scholar recognized the iconographic source in a xylography from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, a Renaissance literary work also known by the pope Alessandro VII, [4] as attested by some of his annotations on a copy of the incunabulum (MS. Chigiano II-610). [5]

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Study for the Obelisk of the Minerva, ca. 1665-1667, drawing, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Provenance: Chigi collection (Chigi P.VII.9 f. 123), Europeana via the European Library.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Study for the Obelisk of the Minerva, ca. 1665-1667, drawing, Vatican City, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, Provenance: Chigi collection (Chigi P.VII.9 f. 123), Europeana via the European Library.

Piacentini then published a mail by the antiquarian Leonardo Agostini, dated to the 9 February 1658 and addressed to the archivist Carlo Strozzi, where Bernini’s project for the cardinal Francesco Barberini is brought forward to that period and the design of the monument is linked to a little marble sculpture, possibly from the Classic period, owned by Agostini himself. [6] In Bernini’s project, that prototype probably worked as an inspiration only for the figure of the elephant and not for the entire composition, as mentioned in the same mail. Therefore, the idea of arranging the obelisk on the back of the elephant could only derive from the original Renaissance xylography. [2]

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Bozzetto of an Elephant carrying an Obelisk, terracotta, Florence, Orsini collection.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Bozzetto of an Elephant carrying an Obelisk, terracotta, Florence, Orsini collection. [3]

The pedestal inscription

The meaning of the monument in piazza della Minerva in Rome thus seems to descend from the similar image represented in the xylography of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, as also proven by the detail of the caparison as well as the underlying inscription, which means that a solid Wisdom need to be supported by a robust mind, as the strong elephant carries the obelisk, carved with the signs of the wise Egypt: [2]

Sapientis Aegypti 
insculptas obelisco figuras
ab elephanto
belluarum fortissima
gestari quisquis hic vides.
Documentum intellige
robustae mentis esse
solidam sapientiam sustinere.

"Whoever here sees the signs of wise Egypt carved on an obelisk and carried by an elephant, the strongest of beasts, understand this as proof that it takes a robust mind to support solid wisdom." (translation by Paul Pascal)

Obelisk of the Minerva-4min

Pedestal inscription of the Obelisk of the Minerva, 1667, Rome, piazza della Minerva.


Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ercole Ferrata (?), Elephant and Obelisk, detail of the elephant, 1667, marble, Rome, piazza della Minerva.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ercole Ferrata (?), Elephant and Obelisk, detail of the elephant, 1667, marble, Rome, piazza della Minerva.

The xylography from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili

Various and engaging mysteries shroud the Renaissance book entitled “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (in English “Poliphilo's Strife of Love in a Dream”, from Greek hýpnos, “sleep”, éros, “love”, and máchē, “fight”), starting even from the identification of its own author. Many scholars committed to unveil the name of the cultured humanist who decided to hide his identity within the acrostic constituted by the chapters’ initials (“Poliam Frater Franciscvs Colvmna Peramavit”, that in English could approximately sound like this: “Friar/brother Francesco Colonna loved Polia so much”), found in the edition princeps of the incunabulum printed by Aldo Manuzio Sr. in Venice in 1499. The two main attempts waver between Francesco Colonna, the Dominican monk from Venice and the more demonstrated identification with the omonym noble belonging to the Colonna family and sovereign of Preneste (currenty Palestrina, a town near Rome). [7]

Tuscan sphere, Elephant and Obelisk, twelfth xylography from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venice, 1499.

Tuscan sphere, Elephant and Obelisk, twelfth xylography from the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venice, 1499. [8]

The author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili describes this monument as encountered by Polifilo at the beginning of his allegorical peregrination, at the base of the magnificent temple of the Fortune, soon after having observed the bronze sculpture group of the winged horse. Not too much far from the previous sculpture, Polifilo catch sight of a big elephant made of black stone, profusely sprinkled with sparkling gold and silver particles. On the back is tied up a saddle, horned with seals and figures, against which an obelisk firmly leans. The obelisk is made of green lacedaemonian stone and appears covered with Egyptian hieroglyphics as depicted in the xylography. Under the abdomen of the elephant, a squared base stands in correspondence with the above obelisk width. [8]

The allegory of the Elephant carrying an Obelisk

As Calvesi noticed, in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili the description of the monument discloses the intention to transmit an idea of the compactness and solidity of the virtuous and strong memory, recalled by the elephant who can bear the weight of the real Wisdom, represented by the obelisk. [1]

In fact, inside the elephant the inscriptions are readable in Hebraic, Greek and Latin, the three languages of Wisdom, and Egypt was considered the land of the earliest Wisdom, where the obelisk comes from. Moreover, in the Hellenistic Hieroglyphica by the Egyptian Orapollo, an important text for the bequeathing of the Renaissance studies of the hieroglyphics, printed in Greek by Aldo Manutius’ typography in 1505 yet earlier known in manuscript versions, the elephant is the symbol of the strong man, endowed with a valuable mind and prepared for the knowledge, with whom Francesco Colonna probably aspired to identify himself, being a noble governor. Therefore, the figure of the elephant encloses a dual symbolism, representing both the attitude for the Wisdom and the character of the sovereign. [2]

Roman Denarius, Rome, Lazio, Italy, 1st century BC, silver, 0.004 kg (0.0088 lb.), The Getty Villa, Gallery 212, Coins, Gems and Jewelry.

Roman Denarius, Rome, Lazio, Italy, 1st century BC, silver, 0.004 kg (0.0088 lb.), The Getty Villa, Gallery 212, Coins, Gems and Jewelry.

The reference of the elephant to the sovereign is documented in the participation of this animal to the Hellenistic and Roman triumphs and in its representation on Hellenistic, Punic and Roman coins, in combination with the sovereign’s portrait. [3] [9] On a Roman silver coin dating back to around 49 BC, an elephant is depicted matching with the inscription “CAESAR” and the word “elephant” was considered to mean “Caesar” in Punic language. Cosmelli compared the obelisk, described in the Hypnerotomachia as made of greenish stone, with the “tree of Life” or the “tree of Wisdom”, according to the ancient iconography, as the elephant carrying a tree on the back is particularly spotted in oriental cultures. [10]

The hidden message of the elephant and obelisk is juxtaposed with the meaning of the previous sculpture, depicting the infants in the attempt to ride the swift winged horse who represents instead the instability and precariousness of the Fortune. [11] In order to face the hardships of life, the Fortune is countered with the praise of the real values of the Virtue and the Wisdom, constituting the true spiritual wealth, as the classical authors and then many Italian humanists thought. [2]

Bequeath of the hidden message

But how could Gian Lorenzo Bernini and his patrons know so well the hidden meaning of the allegory in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili to instill it into the Minerva monument? Calvesi referred to three cultured personalities of Baroque Rome through whom the secret of this image could be bequeathed: the cardinal Francesco Barberini (Florence 1597 – Rome 1679), Atanasius Kircher (Geisa 1602 - Rome 1680) and Pompeo Colonna (died in 1658 or 1661), prince of Gallicano.

The cardinal Barberini could be interested in the multiple allegories of that unique novel and he was perhaps informed about its meanings either by Kircher, scholar of ancient Egypt, or by the descendants of the author when his family purchased in 1630 the fief of Preneste, previously belonged to the Colonna family and, therefore, also to the presumed author of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili. [2]

However, the weave of connections among these notable characters between the Renaissance and Baroque Rome hasn’t been fully investigated yet and the mysteries originated by that book still partially envelops the peculiar invention of the Obelisk of the Minerva.

Giovan Battista Falda, Piazza di Santa Maria della Minerva, Rome, from

Giovan Battista Falda, Piazza di Santa Maria della Minerva, Rome, from "Il Secondo libro del’novo teatro delle fabriche et edificii, fatte fare in Roma e fuori di Roma dalla Santita di Nostro Signore Papa Alessandro VII […]", fol. 6, Rome, 1665-1739, via Gallica.bnf.fr, Bibliothèque national de France. [12]


Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ercole Ferrata (?), Elephant and Obelisk, 1667, marble, Rome, piazza della Minerva.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini, Ercole Ferrata (?), Elephant and Obelisk, 1667, marble, Rome, piazza della Minerva.

 


 

References

[1] M. Calvesi, Il sogno di Polifilo prenestino, Roma: Officina Edizioni, 1980.
[2] M. Calvesi, La "pugna d'amore in sogno" di Francesco Colonna romano, Roma: Lithos editrice, 1996.
[3] W. S. Heckscher, «Bernini's Elephant and Obelisk», Art Bulletin, n. 29, pp. 155-182, 1947. Online [accessed June 2015].
[4] D. Gnoli, «Disegni del Bernini per l'obelisco della Minerva in Roma», Archivio Storico dell'Arte, n. Fasc. X, pp. 398-403, 1888. Digitization
[5] A. M. Partini, Alchimia, architettura, spiritualità in Alessandro VII, Roma: Edizioni Mediterranee, 2007.
[6] M. Piacentini, «L'epistolario di L. Agostini e due notizie sul Bernini», Archivi d'Italia, vol. VII, pp. 71-80, 1940.
[7] S. Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili e Roma : metodologie euristiche per lo studio del Rinascimento, Roma: Gangemi Editore, 2012.
[8] F. Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Bayerische Staatsbibliotek a cura di, vol. b III v/r, Venezia: A. Manuzio Sr., 1499, pp. 29-30.
[9] H. H. Scullard, The Elephant in the Greek and Roman World, Londra: Thames & Hudson, 1974.
[10] C. Flaminia, «L'elefante, l'albero e l'obelisco», Storia dell'Arte, n. 66, pp. 107-118, maggio-agosto 1989.
[11] F. De Nicola, «Equus infoelicitatis: analisi iconografica di una xilografia dell'Hypnerotomachia Poliphili fra testo e immagine», Bollettino Telematico dell'Arte, 4 aprile 2015, n. 765. Online [accessed June 2015].
[12] G. B. Falda, «Il Secondo libro del'novo teatro delle fabriche et edificii, fatte fare in Roma e fuori di Roma dalla Santita di Nostro Signore Papa Alessandro VII [...]», in Il Nuovo teatro delle fabriche et edificii in prospettiva di Roma moderna [...], vol. II, Roma: Giovanni Giacomo De Rossi alla Pace, 1665-1739. Digitization

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