Santa Maria sopra Minerva is a basilica church in Rome – considered to be their only Gothic church. The basilica was built directly over (sopra) the foundations of a temple dedicated to the goddess Minerva – hence the name.
Two Dominican monks, with the great names of Sisto and Ristoro, started building the church in 1280 and it was completed in 1370. It was altered during the Renaissance and Baroque periods but was restored "back" in the 19th century. It is close to the Pantheon and the photos are not that great because they were taken from a moving vehicle:
Our driver took some delight in pointing out the slightly "off" proportions of the elephant in this statue which is infront of the church – it is called Pulcino della Minerva but our driver called it Minerva's Piggy.
In 1665, a small obelisk about 5.50 metres long, with hieroglyphs inscribed on each side, was discovered in a garden belonging to the Dominican monastery beside the church. Pope Alexander VII decreed that it be raised in front of the church and called for designs for a base to hold the obelisk. . A Dominican priest, Father Domenico Paglia was one of those who presented a design to the papal commission. His design had the obelisk resting over 6 small hills with a dog on each corner as the dog is the symbol of Dominican priests (Domini canes – "the Lord's dogs").
His design was rejected and the artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini was asked to present a design; his design was of an elephant holding the obelisk and was chosen because it represented fortitude. The inscription on one side, when translated, reads ".. a strong mind is needed to support a solid knowledge".
Apparently, Bernini's elephant was inspired by a 15th century novel Hypnerotomachia Poliphili – one of the very first books ever printed in Italy – "Poliphil's Dream of the Love Battle" or "Poliphil's Dream of the Strife of Love" in which Poliphil encounters a stone elephant carrying an obelisk. In Bernini's design he had the obelisk resting on the elephant's back with nothing under the belly/between the legs.
But … the Domenican priest Paglia argued that no weight should rest vertically above an empty space as it would not be steady nor long-lasting. Paglia argued that a cube should be inserted under the elephant's belly. Bernini strongly opposed this because he had already carried out other works where heavy pieces rested over an empty space – but the Pope insisted a cube be added to the statue. The sculptor tried to disguise the cube by adding a saddle cloth to the elephant's back but the change gave the statue a squat look which led to it being called Porcino della Minerva (Minerva's Piggy).
The final statue was carved in 1667 by one of Bernini's students, Ercole Ferrata and the name eventually changed to Pulcino della Minerva (pulcino = small or chick) and was probably a reference to the short height of the obelisk.