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How the Pope’s rhino drowned and was immortalised in art history

How the Pope’s rhino drowned and was immortalised in art history

Albrecht Dürer, The Rhinoceros, 1515

The story of one of the most infamous gifts, and one of the most influential images in art history, has been brought back to life thanks to research at the University of Warwick – that of the rhino, named Ganda, gifted to Pope Leo X that drowned in 1515.

“Ganda the rhino, was sent by Sultan Muzaffar Shah II of Cambay to King Manuel I of Portugal as a diplomatic gift”, says Professor Giorgio Riello of the University of Warwick’s Department of History.

“As soon as it arrived in people flocked to the main square in Lisbon to see Ganda”, the first rhino in Europe since Roman times and the latest addition to the king’s menagerie.

The Roman historian Pliny had written in the 1st Century AD that rhinos and elephants were bitter enemies, with it written in texts that “rhinos could win over elephants”, says Professor Riello.

King Manuel decided to test the ancient theory by pitting an elephant from his collection against Ganda – but the elephant fled just as the fight was set to commence, confirming Ganda’s status as a special creature. Despite Ganda’s triumph “Manuel eventually got bored with the rhino and decided to send it to the pope” and add to the collection of animals he had already sent to the Vatican.

Unfortunately for Ganda, the journey to Rome from Portugal was not as successful as the journey from Cambay. Shackled to the ship during the journey, Ganda was unable to escape as the vessel was wrecked in sudden storm off the northern coast of Italy.

Ganda’s fame would though be more long-lasting this his journey, says Professor Riello:

“The memory of the rhino lives on thanks to a print by the artist Albrecht Dürer, and so this rhino remains the most famous European animal of the renaissance.”

Dürer’s 1515 image of Ganda, based solely on the descriptions found in letters sent by merchants from Portugal and known as The Rhinoceros, would go on to become of the most famous images of any creature in art history – going on to be reproduced through the centuries that followed, would be turned into statues and ceramics as well as inspiring Salvador Dali, who kept a copy of Dürer’s Rhinoceros in his home.

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