Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 22, 2017

An Elephant with an Obelisk(?) Bernini in Rome

Whether in a small town or the most sprawling metropolis, simply walking around leads to unexpected discoveries.

Rome is an excellent example. Replete with buildings, monuments, art and even plumbing that originated over a span of thousands of years, the city delivers a ceaseless barrage of sights that bear investigating. With your attention bouncing between the pages of your tour book and your camera viewfinder, you’re likely to literally bump into some presence from the past that makes you stop, gawk and ask, “Whaah …?”

Like this:

Elephant and Obelisk Brad Nixon 023 (480x640)

Okay, a statue of an elephant with an obelisk on its back. Of course, makes perfect sense. The Romans carted back a mess of obelisks from Egypt. Maybe one of them was on an elephant. Yeah, maybe that’s an Egyptian elephant. Or maybe it has something to do with beating Hannibal after he crossed the Alps using elephants (although of 38 he started with, only a handful survived the ordeal).

You know you’re in the Piazza della Minerva (map below, red circle at bottom), but you weren’t planning to stop to see the church (Basilica di Santa Maria Sopra Minerva), visible behind the statue. You’re on your way to see the Pantheon, only steps away, then find La Casa Del Caffè Tazza D’oro (gold star) to sample their world-famous coffee, and then the equally renowned Gelateria Della Palma (150 flavors!) (blue circle).

Rome Elephant Obelisk map Google

You weren’t expecting an obelisk-bearing pachyderm.

While you’re leafing through the guidebook for information, your travel partner sits on the pediment to wait.

Elephant and Obelisk Brad Nixon 038 (475x640)

The problem with Rome, as with other ancient towns, is that it’s not one thing. It consists of layer upon layer of history piled upon prehistory, on top of all of which resides the present, all jumbled together. You can stand on paving stones laid down by Roman workmen while you look in the windows of a modern store in a Renaissance-era building occupying the site of an Etruscan tomb. The city is a welter of cultures, welded together in an overwhelming fashion.

Your guidebook informs you that the statue is Elephant and Obelisk (Italian: Obelisco della Minerva), and isn’t from ancient Rome, at least not all of it. It was designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1660, incorporating a bona fide Egyptian obelisk that had been recovered from the excavation of a nearby Roman site.

Elephant and Obelisk sculpture Rome Bernini Brad Nixon (480x640)

The work of Bernini, called “the Shakespeare of sculpture,” is everywhere in Rome. Not far from Elephant and Obelisk is the Piazza Navona (map, red star on left), where you’ll see his Four Rivers Fountain (Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi, 1651, sporting another Egyptian obelisk). I don’t have a photo that does it justice.

Bernini left an indelible mark on St. Peter’s Basilica, designing the arcing colonnades of the exterior piazza, the massive pillars at the junction of the four arms of the interior, the massive Baldacchino that stands in the center and a number of other works.

The place of pilgrimage to which every visitor to Rome should progress without fail is the Galleria Borghese in the Borghese Gardens. Go there to marvel at four of Bernini’s masterpieces, including Apollo and Daphne. It’s truly not to be missed. I know your itinerary is crowded, but don’t fail to make time for it. Before your visit, click on the Galleria website link to reserve tickets. Don’t plan to show up without a reservation.

I’m sorry to report that Elephant and Obelisk suffered an accident in November 2016. Vandals broke off the end of the elephant’s left tusk. To my knowledge, the statue is still open to view while authorities study restoration. If you visit and have an update, please provide it at, which is keeping tabs on the statue’s condition. and will provide updates.

Do you have a favorite Bernini work in Rome (or elsewhere)? Leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2017

The bottom photo in this post and select images from Under Western Skies are available on CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky image portfolio.


  1. Bernini’s “Ecstasy of Saint Theresa” is absolutely breathtaking. Never knew marble could do that before. One of the best things about Rome for me is that so much modernity is piled upon so much ancient history and it all works in a glorious jumble.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. I have not seen it. To readers: The statue is in a chapel of Rome’s Santa Maria della Vittoria. Next trip!


  2. The only opportunity I had to see Bernini sculptures “in the flesh” so to speak was in, of all places, Los Angeles. There are actually a few enclaves of serious culture there, and one of them is the J. Paul Getty Museum. The Getty hosted a major show of Bernini works a few years ago that I was lucky enough to see. Fluid marble. Breathtaking.


  3. There’s another elephant with an obelisk on its back, but this time in Catania! It’s even more chromatically accurate, for it’s made of marble and black lava stone… here it is:

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s fascinating. Previously unknown to me. According to Wikipedia, commonly attributed as in imitation of Bernini’s statue, but more probably referencing a work ALSO stated as Bernini’s possible source: Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, 1499, a story with woodcuts, from Venice, apparently fairly well known (although also new to me). Thanks very much. One more reason to go to Sicily!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I walk by this work each day on the way to school–certainly a favorite! I still have to go to the Borghese Gallery, where I hear Bernini’s best is kept.


    • That’s an excellent commuting route! Do visit the Borghese. I happy to think of you enjoying that wonderful city of yours.


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