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Dürer’s Enduring Rhino | Historical past At the moment

On 20 Could 1515, the primary Indian rhinoceros to set foot in Europe in additional than 1,000 years arrived in Lisbon. A present to Manuel I of Portugal from Alfonso de Albuquerque, who had himself acquired it from Sultan Muzafar I of Gujarat, it brought on a sensation. Information of the extraordinary beast unfold like wildfire. Amongst those that took the lead was the Moravian printer, Valentim Fernandes. In some unspecified time in the future in June, he despatched an outline, maybe accompanied by a small sketch, to his humanist pals in Nuremberg. There, Fernandes’ letter (or one other very prefer it), fell into the arms of Albrecht Dürer, who was so excited that he started engaged on a woodcut. Sadly, the consequence was fairly staggeringly inaccurate. Although the accompanying textual content implied that it had been drawn ‘from life’, virtually each side of it was unsuitable. With its heavy armour plating, its second horn midway up the again, its three-toed ft and its merciless face, the poor animal appeared extra like a tank than the actual factor. 

Dürer was not the one artist to attract the rhinoceros. By the point his woodcut appeared, numerous different, extra correct, works had been already in circulation. In Rome, in July 1515, Giovanni Giacomo Penni revealed a poetic description in ottava rima, with a crude, if jaunty, little image on the title web page. Additional north, in Augsburg, Hans Burgkmair the Elder produced a extra detailed print displaying the rhino with noticed, leathery pores and skin, a furry neck, rounded horn and hangdog expression. 

But it surely was Dürer’s woodcut which gained out. Inside a brief area of time, it had eclipsed each Penni’s doodle and Burgkmair’s extra correct model – and would go on to form how folks considered rhinoceroses for nearly 300 years. Certainly, so whole was its dominance that it was nonetheless probably the most recognisable image of a pachyderm till nicely into the 20th century. 

That is greater than slightly puzzling. On the time Dürer produced his woodcut he was some of the pre-eminent artists of his day and had constructed his repute on his rigorous – even obsessive – naturalism. He had written that, with out the research of the pure world, there may very well be no artwork; and had produced dazzlingly reasonable work of a Hare (1502) and a Nice Piece of Turf (1503). So why did he content material himself with such a patently inaccurate image? And why did it show so widespread when significantly better representations had been obtainable? 

Unnatural naturalism

On the coronary heart of this drawback is how Dürer and his contemporaries ‘noticed’ the rhinoceros. 

Giovanni Giacomo Penni’s engraving of a rhinoceros, 1515. Courtesy Wikimedia/Creative Commons.At the moment, in fact, we take it with no consideration that seeing is believing. After we observe an animal for ourselves, we undertake an goal stance and settle for any proof we collect about its look as true till we’re proved unsuitable. However when Dürer’s rhinoceros arrived in Lisbon, issues weren’t fairly so simple. Europe was witnessing a revolution in how the animal kingdom was perceived. Whereas, up to now, the research of zoology had been guided by classical authorities, there was a rising sense that firsthand commentary was additionally of significant significance. Quickly sufficient, naturalists started amassing samples, taking notes and dissecting specimens, albeit in a quite haphazard method. This didn’t, nevertheless, imply that their observations had been ‘goal’ (within the fashionable sense), or that they essentially sought to problem the authority of classical auctores. Fairly the reverse. Although their strategies could have been progressive, their investigations had been nonetheless structured by classical assumptions – and the proof they gathered was used principally to complement or reaffirm the ‘reality’ of historical information.

When the rhinoceros arrived in Lisbon, the curiosity it provoked was conditioned by the identical strategy. Since most of those that clamoured to catch a glimpse had solely come throughout such a beast within the works of classical authors corresponding to Pliny the Elder, Aelian and Aristotle, they tended to view it by way of the lens of what that they had learn and located in it ‘affirmation’ of what they already knew. Even supposing it was apparently a quite placid creature, which had grown used to life in captivity lengthy earlier than it had left India, they had been preoccupied with the concept it was a ‘very fierce animal’ which fought elephants within the wild and went to nice lengths to place its ‘ferocious’ character to the take a look at. It was because of this that, on taking supply of his ‘pet’, Manuel I’s first response was to make it battle an elephant. 

This tendency was much more pronounced amongst artists. Although the letters they acquired from correspondents like Fernandes had presumably arisen out of direct expertise, the descriptions they provided had been distorted by classical influences – and had been, in any case, incomplete. However since Penni, Burgkmair and Dürer had learn the identical historical authorities, they noticed no cause to query what that they had been instructed – and even tried to fill in any gaps utilizing their very own information of classical texts. To fashionable eyes this all appears absurdly misguided, to not point out inaccurate, however to them, the ultimate impact would have appeared completely ‘naturalistic’. 


Inevitably, there have been some similarities between the three depictions. Since all three artists had been acquainted with Pliny’s account, they every took care to make sure that their rhinoceros had ‘the ft of an elephant and the tail of a boar’. However what set Dürer aside was how a lot additional he pushed this. Regardless of his imperfect grasp of Latin, he seems to have teased out each final implication of Pliny’s description. If the rhinoceros was actually as fierce as Pliny urged, he reasoned, it should have had some form of extra safety. Maybe conscious of Aelian’s comment that its cover was so robust it may very well be used instead of a plough, he due to this fact gave it inflexible plates instead of a leathery pores and skin, serrated hind quarters and a gorget much like these he had seen within the armourers’ retailers close to the place he lived. He didn’t cease there, although. Delving ever deeper into the recesses of classical literature, he discovered a number of different particulars which had been ignored by Penni and Burgkmair. In Martial’s Epigrams he seems to have discovered a passage describing the rhinoceros as ‘double-horned’. Unaware that the writer was speaking about African, quite than Indian, rhinoceroses, he naturally assumed that he wanted so as to add an additional horn; however since he might discover no room on the top of the snout, he determined to put a small, spiral-shaped spike between the animal’s shoulders. Now generally known as the ‘Dürerhörnlein’ (‘Dürer’s little horn’), this seems fairly foolish to us; however to Dürer, it could have appeared completely logical. 

An Indian rhinoceros and  its calf, Whipsnade Zoo, 1960 © Getty Images.

One of many causes usually given for the success of Dürer’s woodcut is his mastery of the printing course of. Maybe the primary artist to derive the vast majority of his earnings from promoting prints, Dürer had a expertise for turning out bestsellers. Working carefully with specialist cutters, he might produce massive numbers of top quality prints in a brief area of time. He then offered them by way of a community of brokers throughout Europe and saved costs low in order that anybody might afford them. In response to one current estimate, the Rhinoceros most likely value not more than the equal of a hamburger. 

By itself, this doesn’t clarify the size of the Rhinoceros’ triumph. In any case, Burgkmair was hardly a novice on the printing commerce, both. Although he could not have been as well-known as Dürer, he was nonetheless the official printer to Emperor Maximilian I and had loved nice success with pioneering chiaroscuro prints corresponding to Love Stunned by Dying (1510). He was greater than able to producing bestsellers, as nicely.

Quite, what made Dürer’s so widespread was what makes it so unusual to us immediately. Since most individuals’s understanding of what a rhinoceros appeared like got here from classical descriptions, they’d have regarded Dürer’s woodcut as extra ‘naturalistic’ than Burgkmair’s or Penni’s and took this as proof that it had certainly been drawn ‘from life’, as he implied. Paradoxically, its unnaturalness made it seem pure and its novelty acquainted. 

A peculiar consequence of this was that, inside a couple of years, the perceived authority of Dürer’s woodcut turned self-reinforcing. Simply as its constancy to classical accounts had been used to confirm Dürer’s claims to having taken it from life, so its ‘lifelike’ qualities had been getting used to validate classical descriptions, thus boosting its standing even additional. The clearest instance is present in Conrad Gessner’s Historia animalium (1551-8). An enormous, multi-volume work, this was supposed to be probably the most complete survey of animal life ever tried and, like many different ‘scientific’ texts of its sort, gave pleasure of place to Dürer’s woodcut. Given how carefully it corresponded to the main classical descriptions, Gessner noticed no cause to doubt Dürer’s declare to have taken it ‘from life’ and used the ‘Dürerhörnlein’ to reconcile obvious ‘inconsistencies’ within the historical sources.

Elephant and Rhino, engraving by Jan Griffier, after Francis Barlow, late 17th century. Alamy.

Round although this will have been, it served to determine Dürer’s Rhinoceros because the definitive assertion of what a pachyderm ought to seem like. By the 1530s, it had began to look in all places and in all types of media. Within the 1570s, the weaver Nicholas Leynier included it in his ‘animal park’ tapestries for Kronborg Fort; slightly later, Domenico Portigiani forged a model into the bronze doorways of Pisa Cathedral; and scarcely a yr glided by with out it being carved in stone or painted on porcelain. It was additionally invested with a number of allegorical meanings. Because it completely embodied Pliny’s description of it as a fierce and indefatigable beast, it was used to symbolize the virtues of energy and fortitude and to undertaking a picture of tireless willpower. In 1536, for instance, Alessandro de’ Medici adopted a barely simplified model by Paolo Giovio as his emblem, along with the motto Non vulevo sin vencer (‘I shall not return with out conquering’).


As colonialism gathered tempo, Indian rhinoceroses turned extra acquainted to European audiences. Between 1579 and 1758, 4 additional specimens are identified to have been introduced again from the subcontinent; and no less than two (the so-called ‘Dutch’ and ‘first London’ rhinoceroses) had been taken on tour. Coinciding with the event of a extra rigorous scientific methodology, primarily based solely on commentary, these visits prompted a extra looking enquiry into pachyderm physiology and the manufacturing of many extra correct representations (corresponding to that by Philippe Gelle). However so indelibly had Dürer’s woodcut been imprinted upon European perceptions of rhinoceroses that it remained stubbornly widespread. Even those that had truly seen a rhino usually discovered themselves referring to it in descriptions and drawings. Thus, in Francis Barlow’s ‘True illustration of … the Elephant and the Rhinoceros’ (c.1684-5), for instance, the rhinoceros is plainly taken after Dürer’s. Although the second horn has been just about omitted and the gorget changed with thick folds of pores and skin, it has a equally sharp horn and the identical armour-like plates protecting its physique. As late because the 1930s, it was nonetheless being utilized in German college textbooks; and even immediately, it stays a hauntingly acquainted picture – regardless of its apparent and simple inaccuracy.

It’s a sobering reflection and maybe could go some method to explaining why many international locations nonetheless appear so reluctant to acknowledge the vulnerability of the species. Greater than 500 years since Dürer’s rhinoceros landed in Lisbon, so far as pachyderms are involved, seeing may be very removed from believing. 


Alexander Lee is a fellow within the Centre for the Examine of the Renaissance on the College of Warwick. His newest guide is Machiavelli: His Life and Instances (Picador, 2020). 

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