Bernini’s elephant and the Santa Maria sopra Minerva
We turn the corner at the Pantheon and enter the Piazza della Minerva. The first thing that you notice is a small obelisk supported by an elephant.
|obelisk with elephant study
The small obelisk had been discovered during excavations near a garden wall behind the Dominican church Santa Maria sopra Minerva. Following this sensational find, Alexander VII’s architect Kircher went to work (Here is a link to Kircher). He wrote a book on the discovered obelisk that he believed came from a temple dedicated to Isis. The old Minerva temple of Isaeum was located underneath the church, hence the name. People believed that Isis, Minerva and Maria were connected because of a shared virtue: divine wisdom. Bernini took it upon himself to find a beautiful spot for the obelisk. Gian Lorenzo made so many designs that all of Rome could have easily been peopled with obelisks. In one of these designs, a small dog is seated at the foot of the obelisk, a clear reference to the Dominican friars.
It was a well-known pun, which went as follows: domini canes, God’s guard dogs. In one of Bernini’s sketches the obelisk is draped in oak leaves with two female figures holding it up. In yet another design the obelisk is held either by slaves or Father Time. Another drawing shows Hercules carrying the obelisk. Hercules was a universal symbol for all rulers, in this case Alexander VII. However, the eventual choice of a bearer for the obelisk was a surprising one, namely an elephant.
The inscription on the plinth on the side of the square refers to Isis and is dedicated to St Mary. On the side of the church, the reader is reminded that it takes a robust spirit, like that of an elephant, to support reliable wisdom.
The word strong is a reference to the oak in the coat of arms of della Rovere and pope Alexander VII Chigi. Julius II della Rovere permitted his banker Agostino Chigi to use the oak of the della Rovere for his coat of arms.
For centuries, there has been a popular anecdote about the elephant of Bernini. To find out why the elephant is smiling, you have to look at its rear. His tail has shifted to the left and his muscles are tensed up as if he is pooping. The animal’s behind is aimed at one of the headquarters of the Dominican Order. This was the office of the inquisitors, where father Giuseppe Paglia, a Dominican monk, was working. He was the foremost rival of Bernini. This monk had ensured that Bernini’s design was modified. The original design, of which a bozzetto and a drawing still remains, had the weight of the obelisk supported only by the four legs of the elephant.
bozzetto terracotta 99.5 x 54.5 x 27 cm
Paglia produced two designs for the obelisk. A design with six hills that refers to the coat of arms of the pope. And in the other design, the four dogs, domini canus the dogs of the Lord, carry the obelisk. Alexander VII rejected these proposals. Paglia convinced the pope to modify Bernini’s ideas. Four legs were not strong enough. There was to be a sturdy block beneath the body and the legs were to be shortened. One of Bernini’s students, Ercole Ferrata, tried his best to cover up this distasteful change with an overly-sized saddlecloth. The smiling and pooping elephant was Bernini’s way of revenge. Multiple versions with or without smile of this popular story still pass around (see roma.andreapollett). This anecdote dates back to the late 17th century. The satirist and cardinal Lodovico Sergardi released an epigram of just two lines, in which the elephant tells the Dominicans that his rear is positioned in that way to “show respect”.
This story isn’t right, just like the story about Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain, where the Ria della Plata is covering his eyes for the repulsive facade of Borromini (see Wikipedia footnote 64 or Alberti’s Window An Art History Blog). Still, many guides in Roman will share these stories as if they were actually true.
Some weeks before the consecration of the obelisk, pope Alexander VII passed away.
We enter Rome’s one and only gothic church: Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Gothic architecture in Italy, and most certainly in Rome, is quite different from Gothic architecture north of the alps, as we will see. The facade, by the way, was built in Renaissance style.
|Santa Maria sopra Minerva
map of the church
photo: Aniek Messier
The word sopra means above. In reality, this church from 1280 was built on top of the ruins of a classical temple dedicated to Minerva. The church features a number of important works of art. First, however, we will take a look at a famous lady: Catherine of Siena. She played a major role in the return of the papacy from Avignon to Rome. The room in which she died was brought in its entirety to the sacristy of this church. Her headless body lies in the main altar. You would have to travel to Sienna to see her skull or finger (to Venice to see her foot Santi Giovanni e Paolo)
Catherine of Siena
Photo: Lawrence OP
|Interior nave and aisle
In the aisle to the right of the altar we find the Cappella Carafa. This chapel was decorated with frescos by Filippino Lippi in 1489 at the behest of Cardinal Olivieri Carafa. The frescos can be seen on the Web Gallery of Art website.
| Filippino Lippi
Santa Maria sopra Minerva
The altarpiece depicts an annunciation. In this piece, St Thomas introduces the patron, Carafa, to the Virgin Mary. On the right wall St Thomas throws the heretics into confusion. What is interesting, is that in this chapel one can still see where the statue of Marcus Aurelius stood prior to its relocation to the Piazza degli Campidoglio. Once there, we will see why this type of fresco is typical of the early Renaissance.
The main work of art in this church is located in front of a pillar to the left of the main altar; it’s Michelangelo’s Risen Christ.
first statue of Risen Christ
In 1514 Michelangelo Buonarroti was commissioned to carve a statue for the Maria sopra Minerva. By 1516, Michelangelo’s Risen Christ is largely finished, but unfortunately, while carving, he hits a strong black vein in the white marble (click here Franco Mormando scroll down number 13). All the work had been for nothing.
Risen Christ first version reworked by Bernini (?)
San Vincenzo Bassano Romano
Buonarroti leaves the statue at his house in Rome and leaves for Florence to work on other assignments. However, his Roman patrons won’t leave him alone. Metello Vari threatens to involve the authorities if Buonarroti does not fulfill his contractual obligations. In a letter from 1518, Michelangelo talks about the troublesome situation he finds himself in:
|I’m dying of agony because I cannot do anything, again as the result of bad luck (…) a boat laden (with blocks of marble) has failed to arrive, because it has not rained and the Arno is completely dry. The other four boats that were ordered that sail from Pisa will return laden only with water. At this moment I feel I am the most disgruntled man on earth. Messer Metello Vari is still pressuring me about his statue [Teg: Risen Christ], that [Teg: block of marble] is also in Pisa and on one of the first boats to arrive … I’m dying of agony and it looks like I’m becoming a cheat against my own will. I am working on a beautiful studio here, where I am to carve twenty figures. I cannot put a roof on it because there is no wood in Florence, and due to the drought, this situation will probably continue for quite some time.|
Buonarroti, impressed by the threats of his patrons, carves a second version of the statue in his studio in Florence. When it’s finished he sends one of his assistants, Pietro Urbano, to take the statue to Rome. The poor lad immediately runs into trouble when he tries to enter the city gates. He is to pay import duties. After many problems and an intervention by the patrons, Urbanus is eventually allowed to take the statue to the Santa Maria sopra Minerva without paying duties. Many regard this statue as one of Michelangelo lesser works. This probably has to do with the fact that Buonarroti hated going down a well-trodden path. He often did not finish statues because he had already thought of a new and better idea. This statue in this Gothic church was finished on the spot by Pietro Urbano. He had to do quite a lot of scraping and sanding to erase the marks left by Buonarotti’s chisel. Pietro took this much further than Michelangelo did in this phase of his life. In a letter to Michelangelo, Sebastian del Piombo wrote had the following to say about Urbano’s intervention:
|‘But I want to inform you that he ruined everything he worked on, specifically the right foot, which he has shortened so much that it clearly shows in the toes, he also shortened the fingers, primarily those of the right hand that is holding the cross. Frizzi says they look like pretzels. They look so horrible, they appear not to be made of marble, but kneaded out of dough […] and I am sure he will come to a bad ending, as I have heard that he loves to gamble and consorts with whores and makes much money going about Rome dressed like a nymph wearing velvet shoes.’ Sculptor Federico Frizzi later ‘fixed’ the statue.’|
Quoted from: Antonio Forcellino, ‘Michelangelo, a restless life’, Nieuw Amsterdam/Manteau 2005 page 156)
When we are standing before the statue, I will show you an A3-sized draft by Michelangelo. This (whole) drawing shows quite beautifully that he mainly studied the muscles of the torso. While the rest of the study is done in crude lines, the torso has been worked out elegantly and in great detail. To a sculptor, a male body is much more difficult to carve than a female one. It takes detailed knowledge of the human anatomy to correctly carve the underlying muscles, arteries and bones. Carving a female body is much easier because their muscles are often not as pronounced. There is a reason why Michelangelo secretly dissected many bodies in the morgue of the monastery Santo Spirito in Florence when he was 17 years old. The main criticism of this statue is that the face lacks expression and, in the words of some critical contemporaries, appears ‘vacant’.
Also, some attributes and the statue itself have been polished quite smooth. Pietro was overly dutiful in his adherence to Vasari’s motto: ‘after the chisel, rasp and pumice, the Tripoli earth and finally straw, so the finished and shining [Teg: statue] appears before us’. You will have to decide for yourself whether you agree with this criticism or not. One thing is for sure: Buonarroti himself would never have finished his statue like this. When he was younger, he did finish his Pietà in St Peter’s just like that, as you will see in the second program.
The loin cloth you can see now, wasn’t there at first. Christ was represented as a heathen, thereby creating a conflict between the traditional Christian way of representation and the way that Michelangelo carved Christ. This probably explains the later addition of a loincloth, which also happened to Michelangelo’s frescos in the Sistine Chapel that we will visit later this afternoon. The pose that Michelangelo used to carve this statue is classical. The arm crosses in front of the body while the head is looking the other way. Christ’s body is typical of Buonarotti’s style after 1520. In his further development, Michelangelo lays the foundation for a new period in art: Mannerism. This new style was defined by figures showing a spiral-like rotation (a kind of corkscrew, or, as it is called in the art world: a figura serpentinata) In the period that Michelangelo carved this statue, he was already so famous that he could choose his assignments. Quite remarkable was that he no longer accepted much in the way of instructions from his patrons. This did not apply, however, to assignments he received from the pope.
|“In short, this priest beyond praise was unassuming in all his words and actions and very humble, and in his works gentle and pious; and the saints that he painted are in their posture or appearance saintlier than anybody else. He never retouched or corrected any of his paintings, but always left them exactly the way they turned out, because – so he said – that was God’s will. Some say that Fra Giovanni never took up his brushes without first saying a prayer. He never painted a crucifixion without tears rolling down his cheeks: This why one senses the goodness of his soul in the expressions and postures of his figures, great and sincere in the Christian religion”|
Giorgio Vasari, ‘The lives of the greatest painters, sculptors and architects from Cimabue to Giorgione’, Contact, Amsterdam, 1990 part I page 220 (original edition 1568)
In 1455, Fra Angelico was buried at the age of sixty in the Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the main church of the Dominican order in Rome. For more on this painter, click here.
Fra Angelico’s grave