Berrnini’s statue incorporated an ancient red granite obelisk, circa 580 B.C., that had been discovered in 1665 during excavations near the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome. It had probably been brought to Rome in the first century A.D.. for the temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis that was located there. A later variant of this elephant and obelisk sculpture is in front of the Palazzo degli Elefanti (Elephant’s Palace) in Catania, Sicily, inspired by Bernini’s work and erected by the architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini in 1736.
The offered elephant and obelisk model is representative of fine collectibles known as “Grand Tour” souvenirs. From the 17th to 19th Centuries, young English and other European aristocrats embarked on the Grand Tour – an extensive trip throughout Europe as an introduction to ancient and Renaissance architecture, art, and culture. Generally the focus was the classical antiquity of Rome, with travel throughout Italy and often in France as well. In this Age of Enlightenment, such travel was intended to broaden the horizons of the traveler, and was considered an educational rite of passage especially for young architects. Interest in the classical world spiked upon the discovery and excavation in 1758 of ancient cities Italian cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, rich with Roman frescoes and artifacts. As part of the Grand tour, the visitors purchased antiquities as well decorative arts modeled after them. They often also purchased fine art often portraying ancient architecture and ruins. The custom of Grand Tour flourished through the English Regency, though continued thereafter during the Victorian era. Travelers from the Americas also participated in Grand Tour from about the mid 18th century on.
“Elephant and Obelisk.” Wikipedia. 19 April 2021. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elephant_and_Obelisk (25 June 2021).
Gallo, Antonella. “Catania’s Elephant.” Best of Sicily Magazine. 2003. http://www.bestofsicily.com/mag/art84.htm (25 June 2021).