“So have you seen the elephant’s erection?” asks my flatmate Lucia. I gape at her, wondering if I’ve misheard. “What?!” She cackles at my expression. “OK, I was sitting in a cafe one day and was messing about with my camera, as you do.” I nod. “Anyway, I zoomed in on the Elephant Building and what I saw made me nearly fell off my chair!”
Lucia’s friend Salvina arrives. We only saw each other an hour ago at the market, but between friends in Sicily there must always be proper salutation, so there are kisses all round. Lucia is jiggling with impatient excitement. “So, Salvina, have *you* seen the willies on the Elephant Building?”
The building Lucia is talking about is more formally known as Palazzo Senatorio, but I’ve only ever heard it called the Elephant Building. It stands on the north side of the Cathedral square here in Catania, and I’d assumed it had got its nickname because of its proximity to u liotru, the lavic stone elephant that stands above the fountain at the centre of the square, carrying an Egyptian obelisk on his back.
‘L’elefante’, as he is usually known, is Catania’s symbol, and the standard meeting point for anyone arranging to hang out with friends in Catania. Where Londoners have Eros, the Catanese have u liotru. “Meet you at the elephant!” is a common phrase among friends, and there are always people sitting on the steps that circle the base of the fountain, whatever time of day or night you walk through the square.
The more organised arrive clutching newspaper to sit on, brought from home so that they don’t have to come in contact with nasty, dirty stone. One evening, as I waited for a friend, a group of four Catanese turned up – two couples, one older than the other. The younger man – who’d neglected to bring anything to sit on – looked in disdain at the steps. When he saw a piece of newspaper lying close to the place where I was sitting his eyes lit up. He picked it up and placed it with fastidious care on a lower step so that both he and his girlfriend could sit down. They both appeared to be oblivious to the fact that if it had been there for any length of time it was likely just as dirty as the steps themselves.
“I don’t know the truth of the story,” I say to Lucia and Salvina, standing in the scorching midday sunshine, “but allegedly when the elephant – the main elephant, that is – was first made it didn’t have any genitals. However the men of Catania were so insulted by this that the sculptor was forced to add some.” I’m very excited to find out that, not only have Lucia and Salvina never heard this story, but they’ve never noticed the elephant’s appendages before. They exchange a wicked, wordless look, like naughty schoolgirls, and race across the square to see for themselves.
We stand in a row, like three Stoogesses, gazing at the prodigious pair of pachydermic palle dangling from the elephant’s underside. I glance across at the girls. “Um – did I mention they’re HUGE …?”
“Well! Now we *have* to look at the willy!” says Lucia, bouncing with glee.
I’ve never taken notice of the Elephant Building before, but now I see that all around the first floor window arches there are decorative elephants carved into the stone. There’s more to its name than just its proximity to u liotru. “Hmmm,” says Salvina, nodding towards a sleek-silhouetted carving with an art-pseud kind of expression on her face. “I think that one might be a lady.” I snort with laughter, looking at one that has a penis that stretches halfway along his belly. “That one isn’t!” Beside me, Lucia gives a filthy chuckle. “Just you wait!” she replies, her eyes glinting with mischief. “That’s not even the one I’m talking about.”
We round the corner of the building to the bottom of Via Etnea. “I was sitting in this cafe,” she continues, nodding towards Prestipino. “I must have been about here …” She slows her pace and glances upwards. “Yes! Look!” She raises her eyebrows with a pixie-like grin on her face. Her eyes dance as she tries – and fails – to hold in her giggles.
Salvina and I follow her gaze to the elephant on the corner of the building where it meets the University Square. We stare, awestruck, until I break the silence.
“Wow. That’s one happy, happy elephant.”