Friday, December 9, 2011

75. Dürer’s Rhinoceros (NOT ON DISPLAY)

Portugal’s route to the east.
With the Spanish off taking land in what became Latin America, and the powerful Ottoman Empire in control of the eastern Mediterranean and all ways east, other European groups start looking around for alternative routes. The Portugese are the first ones to figure out how to get around the Cape of Good Hope, how to sail from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. As we’ve seen, the Indian Ocean is a great big bathtub with lots of cultures sloshing around and trading with each other. The goal is to get there, and when they’ve set up way stations and little colonies along the way, the trade can begin.

One of the first, famous items brought back from the east to Portugal was an Indian rhinoceros. The Duke of Alburquerque (he later got a town in New Mexico named after him, I guess) oversaw the shipping of this beast, intended as a gift to the king, from India to Mozambique, around the Cape to St. Helena, up to the Azores, then in to Lisbon. It was a big hit in Europe, because of course no one there had ever seen such an animal. The Renaissance scholars of antique Europe, however, had read a description of a rhino in the Roman writer Pliny, and you can imagine how cool that must have been to get one in the flesh. Anyways, the rhino was a big celebrity in Lisbon, until eventually the king of Portugal decided to ship it on to Rome, as a gift to the pope—this the same pope, I believe, who said that Spain can have the West Indies, and Portugal can have the East. This time the ship ran into bad weather and sank, and the rhino and all aboard were drowned.

But a sketch made of the rhino in Lisbon had begun circulating. It worked its way to Nürnberg, a generation or two before Hans Sachs, and Albrecht Dürer there made the sketch of the rhino which is our object for this podcast. Dürer’s rhino is a fantasy, he’s added all sorts of features which real rhinos don’t have. But art which trades on the exotic has always been more successful the less accurate it is, and besides that Dürer had access to the printing press, which Gutenberg had recently put together for the Germans. Dürer’s woodblock rhino was reproduced 4000 times, and thus made the rounds long before that many real, planet-earth rhinos could get to Europe.

My favorite object of all the ones I didn’t see in the museum!

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