The most famous Rhinoceros of all time lives in London, in the Royal Collection and the halls of the British Museum. Exemplars of this famed engraving are also held in other museums throughout the world, such was the fame of this high-end pachyderm over the centuries. The piece is by Albrecht Dürer, artist whose 550th birthday is this year and who became extraordinarily popular right with his first publication in 1515. But what was so special about this Indian rhinoceros depicted by the famed German engraver, inspiring various artists and from which an astounding eight print editions were generated over time? Probably, the public was charmed by its hijinks at sea, the exotic aura it transmitted and its oddball presence in the Europe of five centuries. The text, above the image of the animal, explains that the rhinoceros displayed was sent from Goa to Lisbon for King Manuel I. In fact, the pachyderm reached Portugal aboard the Nossa Senhora de Ajuda, which was also carrying spices, after 120 days at sea. Considered a legendary creature, fruit of the fantasy of writers and bestiaries (which often confused it with the unicorn), a rhinoceros hadn’t stepped foot in Europe since the times of Ancient Rome. The Portoghese King - after having kept the animal in the garden of the Royal Palace, exhibiting it like a trophy and offering the court extravagant entertainment - decided to send it to Rome as a gift to Pope Leo X. However, the ship that carried it sank and the unfortunate rhinoceros which, before being placed on board, was chained to keep it under control, drowned amidst the waves. Dürer never actually saw the animal alive, but was able to depict it with remarkable accuracy based on an eye-witness account contained in a letter intercepted in Nuremberg and which told the animal’s story. The German master created the piece using xylography or wood engraving techniques. The work became popular, perhaps, for the surreal aspect of the animal, enriched by characteristics that don’t really fit reality, such as the tiny horn jutting out of its back, the seemingly impenetrable armour-like hide and its scaly paws, reminiscent of a reptile. Since then, great masters have taken on the Rhinoceros of Dürer, from Raphael to Stubbs, Salvador Dalì to Li-Jen Shih.
Samantha De Martin - © 2021 ARTE.it for Bulgari Hotel London