The final section of the book is a set of “obelisk walks”. Some of these look quite long on a hot day – restaurant recommendations are included, though I’d hop on a tram to Testaccio or San Lorenzo myself. This was my favourite bit, to the extent that I rather wish Loyd Grossman had used it as the organizing principle for the whole book. The historical and art-historical material that precedes it doesn’t seem bad or wrong so much as unnecessary, impersonal and a little bland. Quotations and epithets are repeated, as if memorized from a commonplace book. Subtleties are overlooked in the name of bringing the subject to life – though the same could be said about Bernini, of course.
The obelisk itself is not unduly remarkable, except for the fact that it stands on the back of a smiling marble elephant with an unfeasibly long and wobbly trunk. What’s more, this humorous creature is the conception of the greatest artist of the 17th century, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, a man capable of endowing his work with the most profound emotional depth. In his lively and informative book, Loyd Grossman, a big cheese in the heritage world as well as the world of pasta sauces, looks not just at the elephant and its obelisk, but also at the relationship between Bernini and his patron Pope Alexander VII, and how the pair transformed Rome.