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Catania's Elephant
by Antonella Gallo

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Catania's elephant statue.It stands as an emblem of the city of Catania, its symbolism far from unique except in Sicilian art history, where it has earned a special place. The Catanian elephant, supporting a transplanted Egyptian obelisk, is said to represent many of the city's virtues, yet its origins remain cryptic, obscured by the mists of time and legend. At least part of the reason for this is the decidedly "non-Sicilian" nature of this singular monument more at home in Asia or Africa than in Sicily, where the best-known historical references to elephants and obelisks bring to mind, respectively, Carthaginian invaders and Phoenician colonists.

The elephant in Piazza Duomo was sculpted of volcanic stone during the Roman era, and in ancient times stood in the city's main circus, where the obelisk was mounted as a finishing post for races. More recently, the obelisk and elephant were joined by the architect Giovanni Battista Vaccarini in 1736 on the model of Bernini's Minerva Elephant in Rome. The monument's nickname in the Sicilian language is "Liotru," a reference to Elidoros, a heretical eighth century apostate and wizard who sought, through magic, to make the elephant walk. There's no evidence that his attempts met with any success, but such theatrics found the magician executed on the orders of the local bishop. He was not the last one to postulate the statue's mystical powers. In 1154, shortly before the death of King Roger II of Sicily, a court chronicler and geographer named Abu Abdullah Mohammed al Edrisi (or Idrisi) completed a detailed geographical survey of Sicily in which he mentions the statue's magic. The elephant, which is not typically Roman in design, seems to be influenced by the art of northern Africa or the eastern Mediterranean. Since the thirteenth century, it has been the heraldic symbol of Catania.

Fashioned of typical pinkish red granite from the Aswan quarries, the obelisk bears hieroglyphs identifying the goddess Isis, whose Egyptian cult reached the height of its popularity from 664 to 610 BC, although the style of writing dates the work to an earlier period. The goddess was venerated in ancient Catania, founded in 729 BC by Chalcidians originally from the Greek island of Euboea but resident in Naxos (near Taormina). It appears that the obelisk was brought to Catania by the Romans some time after circa 30 BC. Such theft was a common practice, and several such obelisks can still be seen in Rome. Obelisks were usually constructed in pairs but the location of this one's twin is unknown.

Both the obelisk and the elephant were objects of mystic veneration. Isis was a mourner and enchantress thought to bring the dead back to life. Not surprisingly, her name was often invoked in the rites of the dead. Elephants were symbolic of strength, fidelity and long life. This one was probably thought to be a bearer of good luck against Etna's eruptions.

Catania had somewhat more frequent contact with the East than most other Greek cities in Sicily. Its trading links to Phoenician and Greek cities, and in turn Egyptian ones, were many, and this influenced local mythology. Isis was probably worshipped in Catania long before the arrival of the obelisk. It is quite possible that this particular obelisk was chosen based on the city's prior association with this deity.

About the Author: Antonella Gallo has written about various artists and artistic topics.

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© 2003 Antonella Gallo