Sunday, April 7, 2013

Rhinoceros once removed

As you may be aware (or may be able to tell by looking at it), the woodcut above was prepared without direct observation of the subject. German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer carved the image of the rhinoceros in 1515 based on descriptions of those who had seen the beast in person. And history has recorded exactly which beast that was. The rhino's name was "Ganda" and it was cared for by a keeper named Ocem. It was given by an Indian sultan as a diplomatic gift to Afonso de Albuquerque, governor of Portuguese India, who decided to send it to Portugal's King Manuel I. Ganda and Ocem were added to a shipment of exotic spices which left Goa, India, in January 1515. Over the next 4 months, the vessel sailed across the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope, and north through the Atlantic. After brief stops in Mozambique, Saint Helena, and the Azores, the rhinoceros was finally unloaded in Lisbon, Portugal, where it was met with amazement. Such an animal had not been seen in Europe since Roman times, so it was examined with curiosity by scholars and laypeople who disseminated their knowledge to correspondents throughout the continent. The Portuguese king housed the rhino in the menagerie at his palace, but before the year's end decided to present it as a gift to Pope Leo X. A ship laden with the rhinoceros and other gifts left for Rome in December 1515, disembarking briefly at an island off Marseilles for a requested viewing by the French king. Shortly thereafter, the ship foundered in a sudden storm off the coast of Liguria, Italy. Chained and shackled to the deck, the rhino was unable to swim to safety and drowned. The carcass washed up on the coast of France, so its hide was returned to Lisbon, where it was prepared and mounted. From there, the fate of the taxidermied creature – unlike that of Jenner's cow a couple of centuries later – runs fairly cold, except for a few clues and much speculation.

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