Episode Transcript – Episode 75 - Durer's Rhinoceros

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."

The story of how the rhino came to Europe tells us that the Portuguese were not just trading with India, but were trying to establish permanent bases there - this is the very beginning of the European land presence in Asia. They succeeded largely thanks to Alfonso d'Albuquerque, the brilliant first governor and effective founder of the Portuguese Empire in India, and the man who brought us the rhino. In 1514, Albuquerque approached the Sultan of Gujarat to negotiate the use of an island, accompanying his embassy with lavish presents. The Sultan responded with gifts in return - including a live rhinoceros. Albuquerque seems to have been somewhat flummoxed by this living gift, so he took advantage of a passing Portuguese flotilla and sent the beast to Lisbon, as a special present to the King.

Getting a rhino weighing between one and a half and two tons on to a sixteenth-century ship must have been quite an undertaking, as Mark Pilgrim of Chester Zoo would know. Here he is with Chester's own rhino:

"Well, behind us is Babu. Babu is a young, male, greater one-horned rhino, sometimes known as the Indian rhino, and we're hoping to bring, or we will be bringing very soon, a female from San Diego to be with him. And there are a lot of logistical issues with that. These days they fly, so actually it's a very quick transport, and sometimes we give them a little sedative just to keep them calm, although usually they don't need it, and actually they travel pretty well generally. Transporting a rhino, presumably from India, to Portugal in the 1500s would have been a very different matter. I guess on the positive [side] they didn't have all of the paperwork to worry about in those days! But of course logistically it was an enormous challenge - it's an incredible voyage. It must have been quite a journey, both for the animal and the people who were caring for it."

"I am the rhinoceros brought hither from dusky India, / From the vestibule of light and the gateway of the day," - so runs a little Italian poem celebrating this voyage that astonished all Europe - "I boarded the fleet bound for the west, its bold sails undaunted, / Daring new lands, to see a different sun."

The rhino had begun its journey from India in early January 1515. He was accompanied by his Indian keeper, Osem, and by vast quantities of rice - an odd choice of diet for a rhino, but much less bulky than its usual fodder. We don't know whether the rhino liked his food, but he seems to have thrived, and he arrived in Lisbon on 20 May after a sea journey of 120 days, with only three stops in port - Mozambique, St Helena and the Azores. Crowds flocked in amazement to witness him disembark.

The rhino arrived in a Europe that was obsessed not only with a possible future beyond its shores, but also with recovering its own deep past. Ancient Roman buildings and statues were being excavated with huge excitement in Italy - archaeological work that was uncovering the reality of the classical world. And the appearance of the rhinoceros - this exotic creature from the Far East - was, for educated Europeans, another piece of antiquity recovered, because the Roman author Pliny had described such a beast in his writings, but none had been seen in Europe for over a thousand years. It was an exhilarating retrieval of classical antiquity, a kind of living zoological renaissance, with an alluring hint of exotic eastern wealth. Here's historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto:

"Why [was it that] the rhinoceros was so potent, and influenced the imaginations of Europeans so much when he arrived in Portugal? He was important because people looked at him and saw the embodiment of one of the most famous classical texts in the Renaissance world, which was Pliny's 'Natural History', which devotes a very, very short chapter to the rhinoceros. And when people saw it they said, 'Ah yes, Pliny was right, this creature really exists! Here we've got evidence of the reliability of these texts from classical antiquity, which we as Renaissance humanists respect more than scientific and empirical observation.' That's why the rhino was so important, that's why Dürer drew him, that's why engravings of him were sought after all over Europe!"

The Portuguese king decided to send the rhino on as a present to the Pope, whose support he wanted in establishing his claims to empire in the east. He knew that the Pope and all Rome would be enthralled by the creature, but the poor beast never made it to Italy. The ship carrying it was hit by a storm off La Spezia, and sank with all hands. Although rhinos are competent swimmers, since this one was chained to the deck, it also drowned.

But the rhino lived on by reputation and, even while it was alive, accounts, poems and sketches of the exotic creature spread across Europe. One sketch reached Albrecht Dürer, in Nuremberg, who of course had never seen a rhinoceros. We've no idea how much detail this sketch contained, but the finished print that Dürer derived from it, clearly owes a great deal to the artist's imagination.

At first glance this looks very much as an Indian rhino should look - thick, solid legs, armoured back, a tail with a feathered end and, of course, the single horn. But something isn't quite right - quite a lot of things in fact - if you compare this image with an actual rhino. The legs have scales and they end in large, splayed-out toes. The skin is pleated and lined, and stands out stiffly from the legs. In fact, this rhino is covered with armour plating, not really skin, and that armour plating is worked just like metal armour - with swirls and scales and spirals, which manage to look military and decorative all at the same time. And finally, most puzzling of all, Dürer has added a second horn to this rhinoceros. High on the neck there's a small pointed horn - it looks a bit like a unicorn's horn - that Dürer must have imagined and added to this memorable beast.

It's a long way from any actual rhino like the one in Chester Zoo, but with the real animal drowned, Dürer's imagined rhinoceros quickly became the reality for millions of Europeans. And he was able to satisfy their enormous curiosity in the beast by mass-producing its image, thanks to the new technology of wood-block printing.

Nuremberg, where Dürer lived, was a great commercial centre and home to the earliest printing shops and publishers. By 1515, when he made this print, Dürer himself was the master printmaker of the age, and so he was ideally placed to convert his rhino into a highly profitable print. Using wood-block allowed him to print around four to five thousand copies of this image during his lifetime, and nobody knows how many millions have sold in other forms since. This image stuck. In works of natural history, above all, Dürer's rhino turned out to be unshiftable, even when more accurate depictions of the animal were available. In the seventeenth century, copies of this print could be seen on the doors of Pisa Cathedral and in a church fresco in Colombia in South America. It's appeared on ceramics everywhere from Meissen to Liverpool, and it's now a popular T-shirt and a fridge magnet.

Dürer published his 'Rhinoceros' in 1515. Five years later, in 1520, he had another exotic encounter when, in Brussels, he saw Aztec mosaics in the shape of masks and animals every bit as exotic as the rhino. "All kinds of wonderful objects", he wrote, "more beautiful to me than miracles". In both east and west, Europe was encountering worlds far beyond its imagining.

Next week's objects tell the story of what happened as Europeans spread across the seas, and I begin with a great ship made very near Dürer's Nuremberg. But it was a ship that never went to sea. It's a model clock, actually, in the shape of a ship but, like the rhino, it leads us to the other side of the world.