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An Elephant in Rome: Bernini, the Pope and the making of the Eternal City, by Loyd Grossman

18 December 2020

When not in Rome, this book may do, suggests Nicholas Cranfield

AS IF by way of compensation, my review copy of Loyd Grossman’s well-illustrated essay about Bernini (1598-1680), the popes, and 17th-century Baroque Rome arrived on the day when I was due to fly there for a thrice postponed, oft rearranged, and ultimately cancelled “summer holiday”.

Instead of being able to walk the streets of the Eternal City (Grossman concludes with an itinerary of the 13 surviving obelisks), I ended up pacing the city of my imagination, revealed in the diaries of Pope Alexander VII (1655-67) published in 1975, and in the life of Bernini by Franco Mormando (2011).

Grossman has read widely and builds up an essay that looks at how the papal city grew under the Peretti pope, Sixtus V, and then after the 1600 Jubilee. Long before 1586, when Domenico Fontana achieved the unprecedented engineering feat of lowering, transporting, and re-erecting the 25.5-metre Egyptian obelisk that still stands in the Vatican, ancient obelisks had fascinated visitors to Rome.

In his influential 1549 The Historie of Rome, William Thomas dedicated a whole chapter to them, and another to pyramids. This provided Shakespeare with a clear source for Cleopatra’s “monument” and set the vogue for English tomb sculpture in the Elizabethan era, perhaps most famously with the Southampton tomb at Titchfield as Edward Chaney has recently shown (Aegyptica 5, Heidelberg, 2020).

Grossman charts the close working relationship between Bernini and successive popes, concentrating on Fabio Chigi (given an additional ten years of life in the index), who continued the urban planning begun by Sixtus V. First brought from Egypt to emphasise Rome’s imperial conquests, many of the obelisks had fallen or been broken up.

Only the one transported to what is now the centre of Bernini’s great piazza in front of the newly built St Peter’s Basilica, the only one without hieroglyphs, had remained standing through 15 centuries. Three centuries later, Diocletian brought back the one re-erected on the back of an Indian elephant carved by Bernini’s pupil Ercole Ferrata (1610-86) in the Piazza della Minerva.

The elephant in the room, in this case, is an engraving by the Marseille-born artist Dominique Barrière (d. 1678), “Alexander VII crushes heresy, 1655”. Although he photographed it, Grossman seems to have lost track of this — “Location and size unknown”. The two elephants drawing the chariot are caparisoned with saddle blankets emblazoned with the papal insignia (six mountains and eight stars), as appear on the finished statue in the heart of Rome which was unveiled in June 1667, a month after Pope Chigi died.


Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.


An Elephant in Rome: Bernini, the Pope and the making of the Eternal City
Loyd Grossman
Pallas Athene £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18

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