Bernini’s Elephant & Obelisk
Elephant and Obelisk is a sculpture designed by the Italian artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The elephant was probably executed by his assistant Ercole Ferrata; the Egyptian obelisk was uncovered during nearby excavations. It was unveiled in February 1667 in the Piazza della Minerva in Rome, Italy, just outside the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, where it still stands today.
The image possibly originated from the Hypnerotomachia Polyphili of 1499. Various preparatory drawings done by Bernini exist. One version in Windsor Castle, UK was probably done in the 1630s when Cardinal Francesco Barberini wished to place an Egyptian obelisk in front of his family palace, the Palazzo Barberini. Nothing came of this specific project, but Bernini revived the idea in the 1660s, when Pope Alexander VII, Fabio Chigi wishes to build a similar monument after another Egyptian obelisk had been discovered in Rome.
Various other concepts were explored for this later commission as attested by preparatory drawings. It is likely that the drawings were used so that the patron could make a decision about which design he wanted. This include a drawing (in Leipzig) of the figure of Time holding a scythe and simultaneously the obelisk. In the Vatican Library there are two pen and ink drawings with other figures holding up the obelisk, including one of Hercules, and another with various allegorical figures supporting the spire. A third version in the Vatican Library shows Bernini adapting on the concept he created in the 1630s, although he added in a larger base, switched the direction the elephant was pointing in, and made its face appear more friendly than ferocious.