Visiting Piazza della Minerva: all you need to know (and why you should go!)

by marta

All you need to know to visit Piazza della Minerva, one of Rome’s most peculiar squares and a must-see for Bernini lovers.

Rome has many beautiful piazzas, many of them so grand and famous to make the list of Rome must-see sites, both for first time and returning visitors.

However, there is more to Rome than the grand spaces of Piazza Navona.

Often, the real charm of the city hides in its hidden squares, those small spaces you stumble upon while wandering lost around Rome’s city center and that make the city a constant, delightful surprise.

One of these lesser grand yet wonderful squares is Piazza della Minerva, a small piazza just behind the Pantheon.

While not unknown to tourism, this is a lovely small square with some peculiarities worth knowing.

First, the square is overlooked by the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, which is wonderful and a unique example of a gothic church in Rome.

Second, the square has in its center one of the most peculiar statues by master Bernini: that of a small elephant with an obelisk on its back!

The square and the elephant are very much worth a visit. They are an easy stop to add to any Rome itinerary and one both adults and kids will enjoy.

These are my top tips for visiting and fun facts!

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Where is Piazza della Minerva and how to get there

Piazza della Minerva is a small square in the heart of Rome city center, located between the back of the Pantheon, which you can see from the square itself, and Largo di Torre Argentina.

Closed to general car traffic, you reach the square on foot, either from Piazza del Pantheon or Torre Argentina, both less than one and two minutes away from it, respectively.

The best buses to reach Piazza della Minerva are 30, 64, 71, 87, 160 as well as all buses serving Piazza Venezia (less than a 10 min walk away) and tram number 8 from Trastevere.

If you are getting a hop-on hop-off bus tour of Rome, the best stop for Piazza della Minerva is the same one as the Pantheon: please be advised that due to traffic restrictions you will have a short walk between the stop and the piazza.

For information on how to use buses and trams, please don’t forget to check our easy guide to Rome’s public transport here.

What is special and what to see in Piazza della Minerva

Piazza della Minerva is special under several accounts, the first being: it is just so pretty, one of the prettiest squares in Rome in my opinion!

The second is that the square has two important sculptures by Bernini: one in the center of the piazza and one, less impressive yet peculiar, inside the church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva.

The third is Santa Maria Sopra Minerva itself, an ancient church with important masterpieces by artists of the Renaissance and Baroque times.

This is what to see in the piazza.

The elephant and obelisk statue

The first and most peculiar thing you notice when walking into little piazza della Minerva is a small statue at its center representing a small elephant with an Egyptian obelisk on its back.

The sculpture is unique in Rome, pachyderms not being very well represented in the otherwise rich marble zoo that are the streets of the Eternal City, and it is also important as the hand that created is that of Gian Lorenzo Bernini, one of the masters of his time and one of the makers of Rome as we know it now.

As well as pretty, the elephant and obelisk sculpture has an interesting story worth reading (sources for this story are guided tours we took in Rome and the websites here and here (both in Italian) and it goes like this.

In 1667, a small Egyptian obelisk was discovered in Rome and Pope Alexander VII, always keen to commission embellishments and works of art of the city, decided to use it as decoration for the small city center square.

He asked for project submissions and several were presented, of which two stood out.

One was by Father Paglia, a Dominican Friar.

Inspired by the location of the sculpture, just in front of the headquarters of the Dominicans in Rome, he suggested creating a base that paid homage to both the Pope’s family and the Dominican order, including in it 6 hills (the Chigi family crest) and 4 dogs, symbol of the Dominicans.

The second was the drawing by Bernini and foresaw a small elephant carrying the obelisk and a quote to explain the symbolism of the animal: the elephant symbolized the ‘strength needed at the basis of all knowledge’.

The Pope chose Berninini’s idea but the Dominicans didn’t take this defeat lightly.

They questioned the stability of the statue as created by Bernini, suggested the elephants’ back would never be able to support the obelisk and insisted on the creation of additional support.

If knowledge needs a solid base, they argued, it would just be awful if the elephant was to collapse bringing the obelisk with it…

The Pope agreed with the concerns and got Bernini, or rather his disciple Ercole Ferrata, to add and extra support to the statue.

The support worked in terms of physics but added so much heaviness to the creation that the elephants now looks a little bit like a pig… something the Romans of the time noticed straight away and resulted in a nickname for the little sculpture: ‘Porcino di Minerva’ – Minerva’s piglet!

Bernini, however, is said to have taken a little revenge.

If you look at the elephant closely, you will notice it turns its back to the Dominican Friars’ headquarters and has its tale positioned just enough to the side to show them its behind!

Fun fact. In Roman dialect, ‘porcino (=little pig)’ and ‘pulcino (=chick)’ sound very similar and, over the course of the centuries, the statue has often been referred to as Minerva’s chick! A name that only makes sense if you know the story above!

The Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva

Just in front of the little statue sits the beautiful church of Santa Maria della Minerva, overlooking the piazza.

The church dates back to the XIII century and is worth a visit.

It was originally designed by friars frà Sisto and frà Ristoro, the same that conceived Santa Maria Novella in Florence, but its built took several decades (centuries, in fact!) and was only declared finished in 1725.

This fact explains why, despite being a gothic church in origin, and the only one from that time in Rome for that matters, the church as we see it now is rich from masterpieces of several architects and masters of the Reinassance and beyond such as Bernini and Michelangelo Buonarroti.

The church has so many important sculptures and paintings it is almost a museum itself.

I highly recommend you read all about the history of the church and the most important art pieces to seek out on the official website of the church here, which also offers a wonderful 3D tour of the church.

Good to know: want to learn more about this church? You can do so by joining a guided tour of this area that includes both the Pantheon and Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. You can find info and tickets here.

Piazza della Minerva with kids

Piazza della Minerva is a fun place to see with kids who are likely to find the little elephant really cute. This is one of the best statues in Rome to show your kids.

My two always love to pass by it and the fact that the square is mostly car-free means they can usually have a good run around!

The other big attraction for my son in this square has got to do with something quite a good bit newer than the statue and the church: the square has a small Formula One store, a small paradise for Ferrari lovers!

Where to stay near Piazza della Minerva

Piazza della Minerva is beside the Pantheon and has several excellent hotels nearby.

Two I recommend are:

Grand Hotel de la Minerve (5 stars), wonderful, overlooking the square. The hotel is an institution in Rome and as wonderful rooms, suites and also a stunning rooftop restaurant.

Le Clarisse al Pantheon (3 stars), a lovely and well-priced hotel in one of the most charming streets of Rome, Via della Ciambella, a minute walk from Piazza della Minerva.

Where to eat nearby

Piazza della Minerva in right in Rome city center and the choice of restaurants in the area is vast. however, some addresses I believe are worth seeking out:

My favorite restaurant nearby: La Ciambella, a delicious enoteca/wine bar/restaurant perfect for a date night or a quiet dinner in elegant yet welcoming surroundings.

Best place for coffee: Caffe’ Tazza d’Oro, beside the Pantheon, one of the best places in Rome for coffee and granita especially

Best place for gelato: Il Gelato di San Crispino, in Piazza della Maddalena, one of the best places for gelato in Rome city center

I hope you enjoyed this quick overview of what to see in Piazza della Minerva. Safe travels!

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