Albrecht Dürer's Rhinoceros,
a drawing and woodcut
Germany, AD 1515
This celebrated woodcut records the arrival in Lisbon of an Indian rhinoceros on 20 May 1515.
The ruler of Gujarat, Sultan Muzafar II (1511-26) had presented it to Alfonso d'Albuquerque, the governor of Portuguese India. Albuquerque passed the gift on to Dom Manuel I, the king of Portugal. The rhinoceros travelled in a ship full of spices.
On arrival in Lisbon, Dom Manuel arranged for the rhinoceros to fight one of his elephants (according to Pliny the Elder's Historia Naturalis ('Natural History') (AD 77), the elephant and rhinoceros are bitter enemies). The elephant apparently turned and fled.
A description of the rhinoceros soon reached Nuremberg, presumably with sketches, from which Dürer prepared this drawing and woodcut.
No rhinoceros had been seen in Europe for over 1000 years, so Dürer had to work solely from these reports. He has covered the creature's legs with scales and the body with hard, patterned plates. Perhaps these features interpret lost sketches, or even the text, which states, '[The rhinoceros] has the colour of a speckled tortoise and it is covered with thick scales'.
So convincing was Dürer's fanciful creation that for the next 300 years European illustrators borrowed from his woodcut, even after they had seen living rhinoceroses without plates and scales.
Dom Manuel sent the rhinoceros to Pope Leo X in Rome, who had much admired 'Hanno', the elephant the king had sent him the year before. Sadly, the ship carrying the new gift sank before it reached Rome.
Born in Nuremberg, Dürer set up his own workshop in 1495, specializing in the production of innovative, high quality prints.
He excelled at a variety of drawing, painting and printing techniques, but his Europe-wide fame rested on his graphic art
T.H. Clarke, The Rhinoceros from Dürer to S (London, 1986)
G. Bartrum (ed.), Albrecht Dürer and his legacy: (London and N.J., The British Museum Press and Princeton University Press, 2002)
G. Bartrum, German Renaissance prints, 149, exh. cat. (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)
Height: 24.8 cm
Width: 31.7 cm
Height: 24.8 cm
PD 1895-1-22-714 (B.136)
Gift of William Mitchell