Dürer’s ‘Rhinoceros’ (1515). Woodcut, printed in Nuremberg
The tiny island of St Helena, in the middle of the South Atlantic, is
Famous above all as the open prison for Napoleon Bonaparte, banished there after the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But another great wonder of Europe also stayed on St Helena, a being much less destructive than the French emperor, and one that in the Europe of 1515 was truly a wonder. . . it was an Indian rhinoceros.
He, too, was in captivity, but in a Portuguese ship, stopping off on the long journey from India to Lisbon, a journey that was a triumph of navigation. Europe was on the brink of its great expansion that would lead to the exploration, mapping and conquest of much of the world, all made possible by new technologies in ships and sails. There was tremendous interest in recording and disseminating this new knowledge through another new technology – printing – and all these strands come together in this programme’s object, one of the most famous images of Renaissance art. Because the Indian rhinoceros, in one respect at least, was much luckier than Napoleon – his portrait was made by Dürer.
“When this rhino first arrived, it must have been an incredible shock that there are parts of the world where animals like this actually live and run free. I mean, it must have been absolutely astonishing!” (Mark Pilgrim)
This week we’ve been with four great land empires – all controlling huge tracts of the globe around five hundred years ago – but in this programme we’re with a fledgling maritime empire in Portugal. For centuries there had been a steady trade in spices between the Indian Ocean and western Europe, but by the late fifteenth century the Ottomans dominated the eastern Mediterranean, and they blocked the traditional trade routes, so Spain and Portugal began searching for new ways to gain access to Asian goods. Both
ventured out into the Atlantic, a very difficult ocean for sailing. In the quest for the Indies, Spain went west, and would eventually find the Americas. Portugal went south, down the seemingly endless coast of Africa, until they found the Cape of Good Hope and the route into the Indian Ocean and the wealth of the east. In Africa and Asia, the Portuguese established a slender network of stopping points and trading stations, and along that network they carried spices, exotic goods. . . and our rhinoceros.
Dürer’s ‘Rhinoceros’ is a woodcut print, and it shows a massive beast, obligingly identified over its head with the word RHINOCERVS, with the date 1515 above, and below the AD monogram of the artist, Albrecht Dürer. The rhino is side on, looking to the right, and Dürer has cunningly framed it to give an enormous sense of pent-up energy and force, because he’s packed the rhino’s body into a tightly drawn frame that only just contains it. The feathered end of the tail is cut off, and the rhino’s horn pushes aggressively against the right-hand edge. Above the printed frame that contains the animal, is a text in German:
“. . . brought from India to the great and powerful King Emanuel of Portugal at Lisbon, a live animal called a rhinoceros. His form is here represented. It has the colour of a speckled tortoise and it is covered with thick scales. It is like an elephant in size, but lower on its legs and almost invulnerable. It is also said that the rhinoceros is fast, lively and cunning.”