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Dürer's Rhinoceros: A 16th-Century Viral Fake

Dürer's Rhinoceros

Five hundred years ago, Europe saw its first rhinoceros in more than a thousand years. The animal was fairly common during Roman times seen in circuses and gladiatorial events. But after the fall of the Roman Empire, rhinoceros faded away from people’s memory, becoming something of a mythical beast alongside dragons and unicorns—until one living example arrived from the Far East.

The rhinoceros was a gift from Afonso de Albuquerque, the governor of Portuguese India, to King Manuel I of Portugal. Albuquerque himself received the rhino as a diplomatic gift from Sultan Muzaffar Shah II of Cambay, the modern Indian state of Gujarat. At that time, representatives of the Portuguese monarchy and Indian sultans commonly exchanged gifts to keep the strenuous relationship between a foreign colonial power and the indigenous rulers well-oiled. In this case, Albuquerque wanted to build a fort on the island of Diu, and asked the Sultan for permission. The Sultan refused but to ease tension, gifted him the rhinoceros from his own menagerie.

Albuquerque decided that a rhinoceros would be a great gift for the Portuguese king, and thus in January 1515, the rhinoceros named genda (which literally means “rhino” in Hindi), embarked on a 4-month journey across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and up north through the Atlantic, to arrive in Lisbon on 20 May 1515.

The rhino caused a sensation and attracted crowds of curious onlookers. Many scholars came to examine and admire the beast. Letters describing the fantastic creature were dispatched to correspondents throughout Europe. A description of the rhinoceros soon reached Nuremberg, along with a rough sketch of the animal.

Albrecht Dürer, a German painter and printmaker living in Nuremberg, was captivated by the strangeness of the animal. So he began to a prepare a pen sketch relying on the written description and the sketch made by an unknown artist. Dürer never saw the animal himself, but the woodcut he prepared became so famous that for two centuries it was the only rhinoceros Europeans ever saw.

Dürer's Rhinoceros

But Dürer’s representation of the rhinoceros was not anatomically correct. He put armor like plates on the animal’s body, complete with rivets along the seams. He placed a small twisted horn on its back and gave the animal scaly legs. Despite its anatomical inaccuracies, Dürer's fanciful creation became so popular that three hundred years later, European illustrators continued to publish Dürer's woodcut, even after they had seen the real animal.

Some scholars believe that Dürer was not being artistic when he prepared the sketch, but was true to the descriptions he read. The armor-like plates that Dürer rendered so sharply may represent the heavy folds of thick skin of an Indian rhinoceros. The ribbed mid-section, knobby skin and soft, hairy ears are remarkably accurate. The scaly texture over the body of the animal may be Dürer's attempt to reflect the rough and almost hairless hide of the rhinoceros, which has wart-like bumps covering its upper legs and shoulders. The degree of detail was surprising given that Dürer had not actually seen the animal.

Burgkmair rhinoceros

This woodcut made by another German printmaker, Hans Burgkmair, around the same time as Dürer's is truer to life but was completely eclipsed by the more popular and sensational Dürer's representation.

Dürer’s woodcut was eventually reprinted some 4,000 to 5,000 times—an impressive number considering the era when this happened. It was probably one of the first mass-produced image and the very first one that went viral.

Images have always been a powerful medium, especially in the early 15th century, when few people could read. A picture, as the saying goes, could speak a thousand words and they facilitated the rapid and widespread dissemination of information. As William Ivins, the curator of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art noted, images such as Dürer's ”rivaled or even superseded written texts.”

The influence of Dürer's rhinoceros declined only in the 18th century, when more live rhinoceros were brought to Europe enabling Europeans to finally see what the animal actually looked like.

Clara the rhinoceros

Clara the rhinoceros spent 17 years touring Europe in the mid-18th century. As this painting suggests, by then many Europeans had a fairly accurate idea of the animal’s anatomy.

The Fate of King Manuel’s rhinoceros

What happened to the original, King Manuel’s rhinoceros? It died, of course, but not of old age. After spending seven months in the king's menagerie at the Ribeira Palace in Lisbon, King Manuel decided to gift the animal to the Medici Pope Leo X, so that he would continue to receive favors from the Pope. In December 1515, the rhinoceros was loaded on to a ship, but on the way to Rome, the ship met a storm and sank in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Liguria. Bound in shackles, the rhinoceros drowned while others swam to safety.

The carcass of the rhinoceros was recovered and its hide was returned to Lisbon. Some say it was sent to Rome. The fate of the hide is not known, although some hope that a giant stuffed rhinoceros is still stowed somewhere waiting to be discovered.

References:
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dürer%27s_Rhinoceros
# Carré d'artistes, https://www.carredartistes.com/en/blog/the-history-of-the-durer-rhinoceros-n109
# Jstor, https://daily.jstor.org/durers-rhinoceros-and-the-birth-of-print-media/
# Jesse Feiman, https://www.jstor.org/stable/43047078

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