The Genius of Bernini: When Artistry Hides an Engineering Problem

When we look at a lovely sculpture, a fountain, or a fresco, we usually admire its beauty, without bothering to inquire about its construction. And sometimes that’s a shame, because knowing about the practical difficulties which the artist managed to overcome would impress us even more.

Bernini ElephantGianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) wasn’t merely a master at creating pretty things. He devised some clever workarounds when he was hired to complete projects with inherent engineering problems. His delightful elephant, designed as the base for the small Egyptian obelisk it holds, is a terrific example.

Most people simply think that Bernini was being whimsical here.  That’s probably true to some extent, but there’s more to the story. Deciding to sculpt an elephant was artistic, but figuring out how to make that elephant strong enough to hold the obelisk up was another matter.

The fact is, this “little” obelisk actually weighs about two tons. Bernini’s elephant has been supporting that weight for over 300 years, and (God forbid!) it hasn’t collapsed yet. There’s a good reason for this: the secret is hidden behind the fancy carpet draped over the elephant’s back.

That carpet has to be there, because it covers a critical structural element: there is no empty Bernini Elephant 2space between the elephant’s legs! The whole base is one solid piece of marble, that extends down to the ground. If it weren’t … that obelisk would have come crashing down long ago. Bernini knew this, and designed the elephant accordingly.

Did you know that? Would you have noticed?

But this isn’t a unique case. Bernini had to conceal other practical problems as well, and the fountain he created at the foot of Rome’s famous Spanish Steps is another great Bernini Sinking shipexample. Constructed in 1627, Bernini worked on it with his dad, and together they had to figure out how to solve a pretty important problem: how do you design a fountain, if the water pressure at this location is so low that you can’t get it to shoot up in the air? After all, that’s what water fountains normally do, isn’t it?

Not to worry. Being a creative genius, Bernini decided to design a sinking ship. Water pours out of the sides of the boat, and a smaller fountain dribbles playfully in the center. Given the scenario, there’s no expectation of large geysers of water flying high overhead. The fountain looks totally normal, and your average visitor to Rome has absolutely no idea that it masks a very real engineering difficulty.

Bernini made it look easy! That’s one of the hallmarks of being truly great at what you do. Other artists, architects, and engineers could appreciate the complexities of Bernini’s projects, because they understood the problems he had to overcome. But the rest of us? Usually we just admire the beauty of his work, and acknowledge that Bernini was brilliant … without fully grasping just how brilliant he really was.