Christian Rizzo

Piazza della Minerva: Everything You Need to Know

A comprehensive guide to Piazza della Minerva, delving into its history, significance, and visitor information.

Piazza della Minerva in Rome


Did you know that there is a piazza in Rome that has an elephant with an obelisk on its back? Or that this piazza is the lowest point in the city and was often flooded by the Tiber river? Or that this piazza witnessed the trial and recantation of Galileo Galilei? These are just some of the intriguing facts and stories that make Piazza della Minerva one of the most fascinating and lesser-known squares in Rome. In this article, we will explore the origins, historical significance, and intriguing facts of this hidden gem in the heart of Rome.

Historical Context

Piazza della Minerva owes its name to the existence of a temple dedicated to Minerva Calcidica, the goddess of wisdom and war, built on the site by Pompey in the first century BC. The temple was later converted into a Christian church, Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which is the only Gothic church in Rome and one of the most important artistic and cultural landmarks of the city. The church contains the tombs of several popes, saints, and artists, such as Fra Angelico, as well as masterpieces by Michelangelo, Bernini, and Lippi.

The piazza also has a strong connection with the history of science and the Catholic Church. In 1633, Galileo Galilei was brought to the convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, which was then the headquarters of the Holy Office, to face trial for his heliocentric theory. He was forced to recant his views and sentenced to house arrest for the rest of his life. The convent also hosted other famous figures, such as St. Thomas Aquinas, who taught there in the 13th century, and St. Catherine of Siena, who died there in 1380.

Another distinctive feature of Piazza della Minerva is its elevation. The piazza is located at the lowest point in Rome, and was frequently affected by the flooding of the Tiber river. On the facade of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, there are several inscriptions that mark the levels reached by the water during different floods, from 1422 to 1598. The last major flood occurred in 1870, when Rome became the capital of Italy and started a series of urban interventions to prevent further inundations.

The most iconic element of Piazza della Minerva is undoubtedly the Elephant and Obelisk statue, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1667. The statue consists of a small elephant carved from marble, supporting an ancient Egyptian obelisk that was found in the cloister of Santa Maria sopra Minerva. The elephant symbolizes strength and intelligence, while the obelisk represents divine wisdom. The statue was commissioned by Pope Alexander VII as part of his urban plan to embellish Rome with obelisks. The elephant was nicknamed "il pulcin della Minerva" or "porcino" by the Romans, who thought it looked more like a pig than an elephant.

Architectural Features

The Piazza della Minerva is a small but elegant square in the heart of Rome, near the Pantheon. Its name derives from the existence of a temple built on the site by Pompey dedicated to Minerva Calcidica, whose statue is now in the Vatican Museums. The square is dominated by the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva, the only Gothic church in Rome, which was built over an ancient temple of Isis. The church has a beautiful interior with frescoes, sculptures, and tombs of famous people such as Michelangelo, Fra Angelico, and Pope Paul IV.

The most striking feature of the square is the Elephant and Obelisk, a sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini that was erected in 1667. The obelisk was originally part of the Iseum, a temple complex dedicated to Isis and Serapis, and was discovered in the cloister of the Dominican convent adjacent to the church. Bernini designed the elephant as a base for the obelisk, following a suggestion by his friend Athanasius Kircher, who claimed that ancient Egyptians worshipped elephants as symbols of wisdom. The elephant has a curious expression and a saddlecloth with the coat of arms of Pope Alexander VII, who commissioned the work.

Another interesting building on the square is the Palazzo Fonseca, a 16th-century palace that was later converted into a hotel. The hotel hosted many illustrious guests, such as José de San Martín, the liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru, who died there in 1850. A plaque on the facade commemorates his stay. The palace also has a beautiful courtyard with a fountain and a portico.

Tips and Recommendations


The Piazza della Minerva is one of Rome's most charming squares, where history, art, and culture blend together. It offers a glimpse into different aspects of Rome's past, from ancient Egypt to medieval Gothic to baroque splendor. It is also a place where you can enjoy some peace and quiet in the bustling city center. Whether you are a fan of Bernini or not, you will surely appreciate his whimsical elephant and obelisk, which adds a touch of magic to the square.