Symbols and Animal Statues around Rome

January 14th , 2013 Tagged with:

Most visitors to Rome recognize the she-wolf and twins:  the mother-substitute who suckled the city’s founders,Romulus and Remus. This is only one of the animals that make up a medium-sized menagerie sculpted as symbols in noble families’ coats-of-arms or emerging from the waters of a Roman fountain.

Some are mythological beasts while others are real animals that over the centuries have found their way into the city’s history and traditions.  In St. Peter’s Basilica alone one can count a rooster, an owl, a hedgehog, several lions, doves and dragons ….but how many of us notice them, know why they are there and what they signify?

Here is a guide to spotting some of these furry, slimy, ferocious and tame creatures that make up Rome’s Bestiary.

If you spot some  and take a photo I will be glad to publish them  (with credit) here .

Winged lion decorating a door, Capitoline Museums


Aesculapius –The Tiber Island has always been the site of an important medical center since the early days of Rome when a serpent, said to be the incarnation of Aesculapius, the god of healing, swam ashore there prompting the Romans to build a temple in his honor. The  ancient Fatebenefratelli Hospital now takes the place of the pagan temple. The next time you enter a Roman pharmacy look for the snake motif in the décor.

Bee- The symbol  of the Barberini family, three bees, can be seen in the coat-of-arms of Pope Urban VIII Barberini (1623-44) and therefore on any of the buildings constructed by this important Papal family.    Especially noteworthy is the baldaquin or baldacchino which rises high over the main altar in St. Peter’s. Urban VIII as a “thank you” for the survival of a favourite niece during a difficult birth, had faces –first of a woman in pain then of a smiling baby- carved along with the family bees on the marble pedestals that support the huge bronze baldacchino. 

On a delightful fountain at the corner of Via Veneto and Piazza Barberini, other giant stone bees are sculpted on the basin’s rim as if they were drinking.

Bear-The symbol of the Orsini family (orso=bear) . A standing bear  holding a shield can be seen at the entrance of the palace built into the back of the Theatre of Marcellus reminding us that the Orsini were once its proprietors. A shield-bearing bear also greets  visitors at the Odescalchi Castle in nearby Bracciano, a lakeside town north of Rome perched above the  lake of the same name.

Cat-The Roman street cats are a breed apart for they have proliferated among the ruins of the Colosseum, Largo Argentina, the Theatre of Marcello and the Pyramid of Caio Cestio since the time of the emperors. Romans treat them well, protecting and feeding them, perhaps in memory of how their presence helped stave off starvation in the darkest days of the last war. Via della Gatta (gatta=cat), instead, is a testimony of the temple dedicated to Isis, the Egyptian deity, which once stood on this site near Palazzo Doria Pamphili. A small cat of white marble peers down from a ledge where Via della Gatta meets Piazza Grazioli.


Dragon– A symbol of the Boncompagni family that gave Pope Gregory XIII (1572-85) to the church. He in turn had several monuments and side altars built in St. Peter’s. Note the huge dragon, now without its claws, crawling out from under his funerary monument and a smaller dragon which decorates a fountain placed in the wall of the Palazzo dei Penitenziari (now Hotel Columbus) just down Via della Conciliazione from the Basilica. Also Sala Crociera, a magnificent library, now seat of the Ministry of Culture,  is emblazoned with Gregory XIII’s  dragon.

Elephant –“ La Pulcin della Minerva “, a corrupted form of “little  chick  of Minerva” is the nickname  given to the statue of an elephant balancing an obelisk on its back which stands  in front of S. Maria Sopra Minerva church near the Pantheon. The statue, a work of Bernini, was inspired by the 15th century story Hypnerotomachia, about a journey through a sort of fantasyland. The inscription on the base reads to the effect that it takes a robust intelligence to uphold solid wisdom.

Elephant statue at S. Maria sopra Minerva


Fish- Portico dì Ottavia in the Ghetto area was the city’s fish market for many centuries as the plaque picturing the once common sturgeon shows.  Its Latin inscription, applied to the Portico’s wall, announces that  of any fish over one meter in length, the head was to become the property of the Conservators of the city, proof that the Romans considered fish heads a great delicacy.

Horse– Horses are everywhere in Rome: real ones ridden by smartly uniformed pairs of Carabinieri, bronze ones of equestrian statues. The largest of the latter is certainly that on which King Victor Emanuel sits overlooking the white marble Altar of the Fatherland monument in Piazza Venezia.  Before the final fusion of the bronze horse’s parts and dedication in 1911, the architects and their assistants, about 20 men in all, enjoyed a celebration dinner sitting comfortably at a trestle table inside the horse’s belly.


Marcus Aurelius equestrian statue, Piazza del Campidoglio

Lion –Lions also abound in Rome, from those with crossed paws that spit water in the Moses fountain in Largo S. Susanna to those almost identical ones at the four corners of Piazza del Popolo’s obelisk. In St. Peter’s, Canova sculpted two giant lions to guard the funerary monument of Pope Clement XIII (1758-69), in memory of his Venetian origin. Winged lions symbolizing Venice and St. Mark appear in the coat-of-arms of two other popes: Pius X (1903-14) and John XXIII (1958-63), since both had been Patriarchs of Venice.   Pope John XXIII’s emblem is modernly interpreted using stainless steel and inlaid marble on the floor of the entrance portico.   A dramatic marble sculpture of a lion attacking a deer is inserted on a  house front  in the ghetto near  Portico d’Ottavia along with other bits of  Roman statuary found by the 16th century owner .

Lion and boar, Via dell’Orso

Monsters –Walking down Via Gregoriana just at the top of the Spanish Steps, one comes across a very unusal house built at the end of the 16th century by Federico Zuccari. It is number 30, now a part of the Hertziana Art Library, and is reminiscent of the Park of the Monsters in  Bomarzo about 100 kms. north of Rome, for its windows and doors are framed by monster mouths and eyes.


Naiads- The frolicking ladies who wrestle with marine monsters in the large circular fountain in Piazza Esedra (also called Piazza della Repubblica) made quite a stir when the fountain was inaugurated in 1911. Among the stories told about this fountain are that seminarians were forbidden to look at or approach the provocative fountain and that every Sunday evening two elderly ladies, the sisters who posed for the naiads in their stormy youth, came to reminisce at “their” fountain.  The sculptor Rutelli, was  an uncle of Rome’s former mayor, Francesco Rutelli.

Owl – Symbol of wisdom and therefore of Athena, a tiny owl peeps out from behind the goddess’ flowing garb on the right-hand side of the funerary monument of Pope Pius VII (1800-23) in St. Peter’s Basilica. A sign of the contemporary Pope’s ecumenical spirit, this is the only work of art by a Protestant artist, the Dane Thorwaldsen,  housed in St. Peter’s .


Ox- The Borgia popes, Calixtus III (1455-58) and his nephew Alexander VI (1492-1503) both had a red ox or bull in their coat-of-arms which shows up often in the beautiful Borgia apartments in the Vatican.   Many frescoes by Pinturicchio also decorated these cozy rooms showing  us  the members of this extravagant family: Lucretia, the infamous Cesare or Duke Valentino and the unfortunate Duke of Gandia.

Photo by Barbara Gillespie

Porte – The five huge doors  porte  which open onto the portico of St. Peter’s Basilica are a collection of symbolic and mythological animals and their stories. The oldest  porta is the central  bronze door  created by Filarete and  dating from the 1400’s.  Besides the myriad of animals on its  front, the back holds what is perhaps the world’s first comic strip “signature”. In the lower right-hand corner, Filarete pictured himself and his workers, some carrying their tools, others astride horses or camels.

Sculptor Giacomo Manzù   was the author of the last door to the left, called the Door of Death which has many parallels with the ancient Filarete door. Note the hedgehog, the turtle, the bird and other mini-sculptures applied to the outside of the door and the scene of the tall African cardinal greeting Pope John XXIII on the door’s reverse side.

Rooster- Another modern art work in St. Peter’s, the pair of bronze candlesticks flanking the 13th century statue of St. Peter, narrates the apostle’s life.  We can see the keys of the kingdom being given to Peter, various miracles he performed and the rooster that crowed thrice when Peter denied Christ.  Another bronze rooster which stood on the bell tower during  the Middle Ages is conserved in the Sacristy.

Salamander- This mythical lizard which can live in fire without harm was the personal badge or symbol of Francis I of France so it is fitting that a salamander decorates the Renaissance façade of S. Luigi dei Francesi, the French national church in Rome famous for its Caravaggio paintings.

Sow– Just down the street from S. Luigi dei Francesi we run into Via della Scrofa (scrofa=sow) named after an inn that existed there about 1450. A marble relief of a  scrofa is set into the wall of the nearby Augustinian convent,S. Agostino.

Sphinx-The side walls enclosing monumental Piazza del Popolo are resting places for several haughty sphinxes designed by architect Valadier.

Etruscan sphinxes from Blera

Turtle-Piazza Mattei’s delightful Fountain of the Turtles is a most romantic spot to pause during an evening’s walk and even more so when the origins of the fountain are known. When young Duke Mattei lost all his fortune gambling, his future father-in-law backed out on the planned marriage; his daughter would never go to such an irresponsible fellow. The Duke was still powerful, however, and to prove it he had the Turtle Fountain (designed by Giacomo della Porta and executed by Taddeo Landini in 1585) set up overnight and then invited his father-in-law and fiancée  to view it from a palace window. Of course they lived happily ever after and in memory of the occurrence the window facing the fountain was (and still is) walled up.


Copy of Wolf with Romulus and Remus, Piazza del Campidoglio

Wolf- The original Etruscan statue in bronze was thought until recently to date from the 4th or 5th century B.C. , now it is known to be from medieval times. A copy graces the corner of Rome’s City Hall while the original  can be admired inside  the Capitoline Museum.   The twins were added by Antonio Pollaiolo at the end of the 1400’s. The statue’s back legs were corroded when lightning struck the Temple of Jove where the statue stood in ancient Roman times.   Until about the 1950s  an actual  she-wolf  was kept in  a cage located between the two  monumental stairways  leading up from Piazza Venezia.

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