• A gift

    In 1515, the German artist Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) made this picture of an Indian rhinoceros, an animal few Europeans had ever seen.

    The rhino was a present from Sultan Muzafar II, ruler of Gujarat, to the governor of the Portuguese colony in India, who thought it best to pass on such a splendid gift to his royal master, King Manuel I of Portugal.

    So the rhinoceros was put onto a sailing ship laden with spices bound for European dinner tables, and made the sea journey across the Indian Ocean, and around Africa to Portugal.

    The rhinoceros landed in Portugal on 20 May 1515, to great excitement. The Portuguese king had elephants in his zoo, but nothing like this strange, horned beast.

    The king wanted to see a fight between his new rhino and an elephant, but the elephant ran away!

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  • Drawing blind

    When news of this fabulous animal reached Germany, the artist Albrecht Dürer decided to draw it.

    All he had to go on were a few words telling him the rhinoceros has the colour of a speckled tortoise and it is covered with thick scales', though it's possible he had a rough sketch too, from Portugal.

    Using this information Durer made his own drawing and created a woodcut: Dürer's Rhinoceros.

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  • Woodcut printing

    Dürer was the best woodcut artist in Europe at the time.

    A woodcut print is made by drawing onto a smooth wood block, and then cutting into the wood so that every line of the drawing is left sticking up.

    When the block is inked, and pressed down onto paper, you get a printed copy.

    To get the printed image the right way round, the artist makes the drawing back to front on the wood block - an amazing skill.

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  • Rhino sunk

    Dürer did not get his rhinoceros quite right; it has scaly legs, and armour plates. Even so, it was a good try, and for the next 300 years Dürer's picture was printed in books as the definitive 'rhinoceros'.

    And what became of the real-life rhino?

    The king of Portugal sent it to Rome, as a gift to Pope Leo X, head of the Roman Catholic Church, to join an elephant he had given the pope the year before. Sadly, both ship and rhinoceros sank on the voyage to Italy.

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Fun Facts
  • Dürer began his training as a teenager in a goldsmith's workshop.

  • Dürer went to Italy when he was about 23. He travelled around Europe with his wife Agnes.

  • At the age of 13, Dürer painted a self-portrait. It's his earliest-known painting. He went on to paint himself lots of times.

  • Dürer was keen on science. He published science in German (at that time, most books were in Latin).

  • Dürer kept a travel diary and wrote lots of letters. These tell us about him, and about life at the time.

  • Dürer was interested in all animals and plants (not just rhinoceroses). He liked drawing them too.

  • Dürer's rhinoceros looks like an Asian rhino. Asian rhinos live in India, Java and Sumatra, but are now very rare.

  • Two kinds of rhinoceros live in Africa. They are the black rhino and the larger white rhino.

  • From the 1300s, kings of England kept wild animals at the Tower of London. At one time, the Tower zoo kept a bear that swam in the River Thames!

  • Rhinos have poor eyesight, but good hearing and smell. A rhino may charge at anything that sounds or smells strange.

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