Minerva’s Chick

Amazingly, Rome has more ancient Egyptian obelisks than Egypt itself. The Roman emperors starting with Augustus, who seized control of Egypt after the defeat of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, enjoyed plundering that ancient civilization, and brought many obelisks back to decorate the Eternal City. Indeed, these obelisks were so popular that when the supply ran out, Romans threw together some forgeries!

My favorite obelisk is also the smallest, and most unusual. This one stands before the beautiful Gothic church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, (atop — or — above Minerva). The church, dating from the 13th century, sits just off to the side of Rome’s most magnificent church, the Pantheon.

Elephant and obelisk before Santa Maria sopra Minerva
Elephant and obelisk, with Santa Maria sopra Minerva in the background

Like many of Rome’s churches, this one was intentionally built over the site of a pagan temple, and the name reminded people of this triumph of Christianity over paganism.  Ironically, however, they got the name of the goddess wrong — the temple in question was actually dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis, not the Greco-Roman goddess Minerva.

In 1665, a small obelisk was found buried in the garden of the church’s cloister. This obelisk may once have stood at the entrance to the temple of Isis. A decorative base for the obelisk was commissioned from the great Baroque sculptor and architect, Gian Lorenzo Bernini. He chose the most unusual of subjects, a little elephant carrying an obelisk on its back.  The elephant and obelisk became known as Minerva’s chick, the “pulcino della Minerva.” It’s a friendly looking little beast, with an ornate saddle holding the obelisk.

Bernini's elephant
Bernini’s little elephant

Inside the church is fabulous art, including Michelangelo‘s Christ Carrying the Cross, as well as the beautiful Carafa Chapel painted by Filippo Lippi.

The Carafa Chapel
The Carafa Chapel

But also make sure to see the church for its beautiful blue ceilings.

The church's blue ceilings
The church’s blue ceilings