The Malta Independent 22 June 2021, Tuesday

Winning combination: Pope and genius

Noel Grima Sunday, 6 June 2021, 11:15 Last update: about 11 days ago

An Elephant in Rome: Bernini, the Pope and the Making of the Eternal City. Author: Loyd Grossman. Publisher: Pallas Athene / 2020. Pages: 320pp

Fabric Chigi, from the important banker family from Siena, began his long career within the Church by being nominated on the recommendation of two cardinals as Inquisitor in Malta (1634 -1639).

Then he was recalled and he became Nuncio in Germany after which he became Secretary of State. Then in 1655 after a long conclave that lasted 80 days he became Pope Alexander VII.

The young, suave prelate who had enlarged and embellished the Palace of the Inquisition in Vittoriosa had meantime aged prematurely and he was often sick.


By 1650 the Catholic Church had suffered the twin blows of the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years War. Its hold on the remaining Catholic masses was weakening.

Then came the new pope determined to make Rome once again the Eternal City. Together with Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the foremost artist of his time, pope and artist made a creative duo and managed to turn around the decadence of the time and created the Baroque Rome we love and admire. Rome became again the destination of choice and the Caput Mundi for the world's Catholics.

This is a very enjoyable book which meanders around the projects of the pope and the artist as they strove to create an artistic unity among Rome's chaotic streets.

This they did by focusing and repositioning the 13 obelisks that Imperial Rome had brought over from Egypt but who lay mostly broken and forgotten amid the ruins.

The pope-artist duo positioned many of them near the great churches of the city where they are to be found till this day. The obelisk, which had the least ground to travel, was the one we find in the centre of St Peter's Square since it had lain in the nearby Vatican cemetery.

The obelisk on the cover of the book, the one in front of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, at the back of the Pantheon, was the last one to be erected. When it was inaugurated the pope had just died. Bernini followed some time later but times had changed and he never got back the power he had with Alexander.

There were many other artists of note in those days - Rubens, Velasquez, etc. - but through pope after pope Bernini was the top.

It is enough to remember among his many creations - the Baldacchino in St Peter's, the square itself and the statue of St Theresa in ecstasy.

For all his work in churches, he was hot-blooded too - once he got involved in a love triangle with his own brother and once he rushed into a church with a drawn sword, hell-bent on vengeance.

He was also the creator of the wonderful Four Rivers sculpture, also with an obelisk, in Piazza Navona and every tour guide relishes to point out that the figure nearest the Sant'Agnese in Agone church seems to shield his head as if afraid the church - by rival Francesco Borromini - could fall on him.

Here, in Piazza della Minerva, the same jokey character may be at play - the elephant's ample rump is facing the Dominican church as in the act of defecation.

The author is a former MasterChef presenter who has for years been captivated by Rome's attractions. 

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