The news that Bernini’s Elephant in Piazza della Minerva in Rome has been vandalised, reported by this magazine – makes particularly sad reading.
The damage is slight, and can no doubt be repaired, as the broken tusk has been recovered, and though the work in question is not one of the artist’s supreme masterpieces, the Elephant with an Obelisk on its back is a famous landmark.
According to legend, the elephant’s backside is pointed at the palazzo behind it because the owner of the palazzo, the man who commissioned the work, Fabio Chigi, Pope Alexander VII, refused to pay the agreed price for it. There is no historical truth in this story, but, as the Italians love to say, se non é vero, é ben trovato (if it is not true, it is a good story.) Fabio Chigi, from the famous banking family, is a distinguished Pope who did much to create the Rome we enjoy today. He is also one of two Popes to have lived in Malta, where he was Inquisitor for five years in the 1630’s. As such he lived in two beautiful houses, the Inquisitor’s Palace in Vittoriosa and the Inquisitor’s Summer Palace in Girgenti.
Years ago, as a teenager, I was given a tour of that abandoned Summer Palace, long before it was turned into an official residence for the Prime Minister. It was then one of the most lovely places on earth. Fabio Chigi must have enjoyed it. The other Palace he had at his disposition is also of great interest.
Who vandalised the elephant? We shall probably never know, but it was an act of shockingly cavalier carelessness. Whoever is responsible should be deeply ashamed of their actions. We often hear that care for the environment is a Christian duty, and so it is. But this care must extend to the built environment as well, and the all too common defacing of public monuments in Rome is a sign of a deep lack of care for the common patrimony of humanity. The elephant belonged to everyone. To harm it is to wound us all. Yet what has happened to the elephant, which might well have been the result of exuberant teenage behaviour, pales into insignificance compared to what has happened in Syria – the destruction of the ruins of Palmyra by ISIS, and the continuing destruction of eastern Aleppo by President Assad and his allies.
We really do need to look after our world better. The sad fate of the elephant is a timely reminder of this. Catholics have a special duty to preserve the beautiful things we have inherited, given that so many of these things were crested by Catholics in the first place. The Romans have more heritage than most, as did once the Syrians; but every small parish has something beautiful in it, more often that not. Let’s keep the vandals at bay, and set a good example in preserving beauty!