The Stone Menagerie

by Danilo Brunetti

Lions, elephants, and horses, oh my! Everywhere you look in Rome you’ll nd artistic representations—usually in marble, travertine, or bronze—of practically every animal on the planet, so many species in fact that it’s almost impossible to catalogue them all. Here are a few denizens of Rome’s urban zoo, animated by the legends, symbolism, and imagination of the city’s inhabitants.

The symbol of Rome and its ancient origins is a she-wolf, or lupa in Italian, and the most famous of all resides in the Capitoline Museums. The Capitoline Shewolf is in a perfect state of conservation, despite the lightening bolt that struck it in the 1st century B.C. Although the she-wolf herself is Etruscan, the suckling twins were added in the 16th century by Antonio Pollaiolo. Other versions of the lupa can be found on the Pincian Hill above Piazza del Popolo, along Ponte Flaminio, and on the spigots of countless nasoni, the small drinking fountains that litter the city.

The horse is ubiquitous in Rome. There are dozens of equestrian statues in town, starting with that of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza del Campidoglio. According to legend, the bronze statue depicts judgment day, specically the moment the horse’s disheveled mane was transformed into a singing owl. The horses of Rome are often in the company of the Dioscuri, the twin sons of Jupiter and the protectors of knights; you can spot them on either side of the Capitoline staircase, in the center of Piazza Quirinale, and in front of the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro in EUR.

Lions are also main characters on the city’s stage. On the Capitoline Hill, they spew water from their gaping jaws (fun fact: during a city fair in the 1800s, the fountain’s water was swapped for wine). You’ll find more lions flanking the obelisk in Piazza del Popolo; on the the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, where the king of the jungle quenches its thirst with the vital waters of the Nile; at the entrance to the Bioparco Zoo (where the ones inside are made of fresh and blood); and on the fountain of the Palazzo di Giustizia, an allegory of unfaltering justice punishing the guilty without hesitation.
Don’t miss Rome’s beloved baby elephant, affectionately called pulcino (a pet name given to Italian children) by locals. In the center of Piazza della Minerva, he carries an obelisk and turns his trunk toward the former convent of the Dominicans.

In 1666, Pope Alessandro VII commissioned Gianlorenzo Bernini to carry out the work, supposedly inspired by The Dream of Poliphilus (in which the title character meets an elephant with an obelisk on its back). Others believe that the small pachyderm is simply a portrayal of Annone, a live elephant who lived in the pontifical court, given to the Pope by a sultan. According to a curious anecdote, in order to ridicule the intervention of a Dominican friar who had convinced the pope to modify the original design, Bernini sculpted
the elephant with his backside facing the Dominican’s convent and its trunk bent in a sign of mockery.

Coppedè is a fantastical art nouveau neighborhood in the north of the city designed by, and named for, architect Gino Coppedè. In addition to the many fantastical creatures that were invented by the architect, you can hunt for spiders, owls, and frogs—the latter of which adorn the fountain in Piazza Mincio. Another delightful fountain stands in Piazza Mattei in the Jewish Ghetto. The Turtle Fountain, designed by Giacomo della Porta in 1588, is dominated by four youths, each seated upon a miniature dolphin. Legend has it that, half a century after the fountain’s completion, Bernini added the four turtles who balance— with the help of the youths—on the upper rim of the fountain.

Dolphins can be found again and again on the city landscape. On the Fountain of the Four Rivers, another masterpiece by Bernini, they are in the company of a snake, a dove, a lion, a horse, and even an odd looking crocodile. The Fountain of the Triton in Piazza Barberini—yet another Bernini gem—boasts a triton seated on an enormous shell which is in turn held up by the raised tails of four angry dolphins.

Rome also has many “invisible” animals, creatures that can be found only by taking a closer look. The ancient bas-relief of a sow on Via della Scrofa (which gives the street its name) passes almost unobserved. Likewise, if you don’t know it’s there, you will almost certainly miss the cat perched on the ledge of Palazzo Grazioli on Via della Gatta (another street named for its animal mascot), or the puppy on Via Veneto (next to Hotel Majestic), the friendly guardian of a minuscule drinking trough dedicated to the city’s faithful four-legged friends.

Bees. You might miss them at first glance, but once you notice one, you’ll see them everywhere: creeping up the twisted columns of Bernini’s massive Baldachino in St. Peter’s Basilica, decorating the archways of Palazzo di Propaganda Fide near the Spanish Steps, looking down from the stained-glass windows in Santa Maria in Aracoeli church, adorning the Barcaccia fountain in Piazza di Spagna, and perhaps most obviously, on the Fountain of the Bees in Piazza Barberini. It’s no coincidence that this fountain is located where it is; the bee was the heraldic symbol of the Barberini family and their most illustrious member, Pope Urban VIII.

Finally we come to an animal rarely represented in Rome: the deer, symbol of the Sant’Eustachio neighborhood, that has a fascinating legend behind it. The story goes that a deer—about to be killed by a Roman centurion—revealed his divine essence to its hunter when a cross appeared between his horns. The miracle convinced the soldier to convert to Christianity and later suffer martyrdom with the name of Eustachio. After having survived the lions in the arena, the saint met his death by being burned alive in the stomach of a bronze bull. A small fountain by Pietro Lombardi on Via degli Staderari gives homage to the neighborhood, both with the representation of the head of a deer, as well as the stacks of books, a nod to nearby La Sapienza, Rome’s first university. You’ll find another deer head (one that almost everyone misses) perched on the top of Sant’Eustachio church.