bernini: esoteric rome

After a lumpy and bumpy sojourn in Paris for six months, Bernini had realized that the locus of power had shifted to France; Louis XIV had assumed the mantle of chief patron of the arts as an expression and extension of power. With the end f the Counter Reformation it was obvious that economic and political control had migrated northward, and that the papacy had lived beyond its means for too long and could no longer dazzle Europe with its panoply of artists. And Louis XIV was a tough nut to crack: hard to subdue a man deeply chauvinistic, imbued with divine right, and who personally considered himself drowned by god and had the means available to act out the pretense.

—The obelisk in Piazza di S. Maria sopra Minerva was found in 1665 in the cloister of the church. It was originally erected in Sais, a town in Lower Egypt, by the Pharaoh Apries. In 1667 Gian Lorenzo Bernini erected the small obelisk on top of an elephant (a work by Ercole Ferrata). Here you see it from the back; for a frontal view see my page on Alexander VII (1655-67) the pope whose heraldic symbols and coats of arms decorate several parts of the monument.—Read More: image:

Back in Rome’s more hospitable ambiance Bernini finished his interrupted work on the colonnade. Also, as a tribute to Alexander VII, he designed the oddly comic monument that stands in front of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva: an Egyptian monolith growing out of a baby elephant’s back. Baroque morphing into an unknown zone , which here had the startling quality of some of the more celebrated surrealistic juxtapositions, such as the umbrella on the operating table. But as the involved conceits of the inscriptions show, the monument was not intended to be bizarre. It was the emblematic glorification of the papal reign. A jungle beast and a pagan obelisk became the paradoxical symbols of an elderly pope’s wisdom and holiness.

—In 1665 a small Egyptian obelisk was found in the monastery garden of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.
Pope Alexander VII asked Bernini to set it up in the square in front of the church. “Make a nice pedestal for it,” he told him.
Bernini had the funny idea to stand the thing on the back of a baby elephant.
Photo licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Elephants were still fabulous creatures in the seventeenth century and a great curiosity. Many artists drew them, though they had never actually set eyes on one.
The Pope was interested in the meaning of the old hieroglyphic inscriptions and asked a famous Egyptologist to translate them for him. “The obelisk is a symbol of sunlight (sole), Holiness,” he told Alexander, who was delighted and fancied that the old stone needle was a glorification of his reign as pope. Poets then rose to the occasion:….Read More:


(see link at end)… no-one had ever used the Italian genius Bernini as a source of esoteric intrigue… perhaps because, if anything, Bernini appeared to be a devout Christian and hence difficult to massage into controversy. Brown, however, would transform this architect in a secret alchemist, who left clues of his secret alliance imprinted on the streets of Rome. But is this fiction, or not?

Brown commentator and author Simon Cox in “Illuminating Angels & Demons” writes that “Brown’s inclusion of the so-called ‘Father of the Baroque’, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, in Angels & Demons was an inspired decision. This remarkable sculptor, painter and architect has left an indelible mark on the face of modern-day Rome. Bernini is everywhere: his spirit is ever-present, and his legacy within the fabric of Roman society remains all-pervasive.” Cox is nevertheless sceptical that Bernini was a member of a secret society.

Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) trained as a sculptor, and later became an architect. He was world-famous in both disciplines and within his own lifetime and it is said that when he finally visited Paris, when he walked about the city, its streets crowded with admirers – a quality that few artists ever achieved in their own lifetime, but Bernini did. Read More:

…in the Piazza della Minerva, is another Bernini statue: that of an elephant with an obelisk on his back. The design is not original to Bernini and is in fact found in the Hypnertomachia Poliphili. This extremely enigmatic book is linked with various occult lore and seeing that Bernini made a drawing from it into a statue begs the question whether this is further evidence of a secret allegiance of Bernini to some occult tradition. Remarkably, however, the statue does not feature in Brown’s book.
Equally, “official history” has gone out of its way to explain this statue, calling it “Bernini’s Chick”. Some interpret the statue as a reference to Pope Alexander VII’s reign and that it illustrates the fact that strength – the elephant – should support wisdom – the obelisk. Others will highlight that the statue, created in 1667, was done by one of Bernini’s students, Ercole Ferrata. They will talk about its smile, and how one needs to move towards the rear end of the animal, to see that its tail is shifted to the left, as it it is defecating, and how the animal’s rear points at the office of Father Domenico Paglia, a Dominican friar, who was one of the main antagonists of Bernini and his artisan friends, as a final salute and last word. Normally, it are the conspiracy theorists that are accused of reading too much into things, but when the official historian has to explain the obvious, namely that Bernini copied this from an occult-ish book, it clearly can stretch its theories as far, if not further, than any conspiracy theory! ( ibid)

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