Today we celebrate the rhinoceros – not just any rhinoceros, but the Indian species, Rhinoceros unicornis, the fifth largest land animal. About 3,000 live, mostly, in Assam and Nepal, though it is classified as ‘Vulnerable’ by the IUNC (i.e. not as bad as ‘Endangered’, but worse than ‘Near Threatened’). The problem is not so much loss of habitat as of the ridiculous belief in rhino horn as both status symbol and ‘traditional medicine’ in certain countries.
The Italians seem always to have has a bit of a thing about rhinoceri, from the beasts brought to Roman circuses to the two recent exemplars below, from Venice (top) and Portofino (bottom).
This all seems to have started in early modern times with the arrival of an Indian rhinoceros (obtained by the famous explorer Afonso de Albuquerque) at the court of Manuel I in Lisbon in 1515. It was frequently put on display and became a huge sensation across Europe. The king decided to send the animal as a gift to Pope Leo X, but it sadly drowned after the boat it was travelling in was shipwrecked in early 1516: it was shackled, and could not therefore swim. (Lawrence Norfolk’s The Pope’s Rhinoceros is a fantastical, dark but exuberant re-imagining of this story.)
The first published illustration seems to have been a rather crude woodcut in July 1515 (below), and Albrecht Dürer famously produced an engraving, also in 1515, without ever having seen the beast. However, his reproduction of the ‘plates’, which are one of the distinctive features of the Indian species, suggest that he had either seen a sketch or received a very good description of the ill-fated beast.
The next known rhinoceros in Europe, whose name was Abada, also went to Portugal, in 1577, to the court of Sebastian I, who, like England’s King Arthur and the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, vanished in battle but may yet come again. Abada was inherited (along with the rest of Portugal) by King Philip II of Spain, and kept in the royal palace/monastery of El Escorial, where she seems to have died about 1588.
The Indian rhinoceros Clara actually has both birth and death dates (1738–14 April 1758). Orphaned after her mother was killed by hunters, she was adopted by one Jan Albert Sichterman, who just happened to be the Director of the VOC, the Dutch East India Company. She became tame in human society, and was given (or sold) in 1740 to a ship’s captain who took her back to the Netherlands and then immediately on a European tour, the first of many, in a purpose-built wooden carriage. In Paris, she was examined by Buffon, and painted by Jean-Baptiste Oudry. (She had already posed for a Meissen porcelain model in Dresden.)
In Venice, Pietro Longhi depicted her with some visitors as part of his enchanting series on daily life now in the Ca’ Rezzonico Museum (where the widowed Robert Browning often stayed with his son, whose home it at one point was). (By this time, she had either rubbed her horn off or had it filed flat, apparently: her keeper is displaying it in his right hand.)
After criss-crossing Europe for seventeen years, Clara ended up in Lambeth, London, where she was exhibited at the Horse and Groom pub (now apparently the Horse and Stables?), dying there on 14 April 1758. (An account of her celebrity and travels is given in Glynis Ridley’s Clara’s Grand Tour.)
Thomas Bewick’s General History of Quadrupeds (1790) gives the Indian (or one-horned) rhinoceros primacy over the African (or two-horned). There is a long and careful description of the animal, which notes that it is thought by some to be the ‘unicorn’ of Holy Writ, having the qualities of – ‘rage, untameableness [had he not heard of Clara?], great swiftness, and immense strength’. Also, ‘Augustus entered one into the shews, on his triumph over Cleopatra’.
Thomas Pennant, on the other hand, in vol. 1 of his History of Quadrupeds (1793), puts the African first, and illustrates it, but there is no image of the Indian. His description of the latter says: ‘Is a solitary animal: brings one young at a time; is very solicitous about it: quiet and inoffensive; but when provoked, furious: very swift and very dangerous: I know a gentleman who had his belly slit up by one, but survived the wound.’ (The gentleman, a footnote adds, was one Charles Pigot, Esq. of Peploe, Shropshire.)
Pennant also mentions the unicorn connection, but debunks that animal as myth. He does however record a marvellous discovery by the explorer Peter Simon Pallas (the anniversary of whose death in 1811 falls today): ‘An entire Rhinoceros was found buried in a bank of a Sibirian river, in the antient frozen soil, with the skin, tendons, and some of the flesh in the highest preservation. … the complete head is now preserved in the museum at Petersburg.’ This image shows the head and feet, as published in the Yearbook of the St Petersburg Academy, 1772, and an entertaining account of the discovery and attempted preservation of the carcass can be read here.
Apparently, woolly elephants (mammoths) were quite frequently discovered, but the ancient Siberian rhinoceros was a rare survival – as much a curiosity as were the first three Indian specimens who made it to Europe.