Albrecht Dürer and King Manuel's Rhinoceros

20 May 1515, a rhinoceros arrived in Lisbon as a present for King Manuel I, the first time such an animal was seen in Europe since the 3rd century CE, inspiring Albrecht Dürer to his famous woodcut “The Rhinoceros”.

“Nach Choistiegeburt/1513. Iar Adi 1. May. Hat man dem großmechtigisten König Emanuel von Portugal/gen Lysabona aus India pracht /ain solch lebendig Thier. das nennen sie Rhinocerus/Das ist hie mit aller seiner gestalt Abconterfect. Es hat ein Farb wie ein gepsreckelte Schildkrot/und ist von dicken Schalen uberleget sehr fest/und ist in der größ als der Heilffandt /Aber niderichter von baynen und sehr wehrhafftig. Es hat ein scharffstarck Horn vorn auff der Nassen/das begundt es zu wetzen wo es bey staynen ist/das da ein Sieg Thir ist/des Heilffandten Todtfeyndt. Der Heilffandt fürchts fast ubel/den wo es Ihn ankompt/so laufft Ihm das Thir mit dem kopff zwischen die fordern bayn/und reist dem Heilffanten unten am bauch auff/und er würget ihn/des mag er sich nicht erwehren.dann das Thier ist also gewapnet/das ihm der Ieilffandt nichts Thun kan/Sie sagen auch/das der Rhinocerus/Schnell/fraytig/und auch Lustig/sey.“ (On the first of May in the year 1513 AD [sic], the powerful King of Portugal, Manuel of Lisbon, brought such a living animal from India, called the rhinoceros. This is an accurate representation. It is the colour of a speckled tortoise, and is almost entirely covered with thick scales. It is the size of an elephant but has shorter legs and is almost invulnerable. It has a strong pointed horn on the tip of its nose, which it sharpens on stones. It is the mortal enemy of the elephant. The elephant is afraid of the rhinoceros, for, when they meet, the rhinoceros charges with its head between its front legs and rips open the elephant's stomach, against which the elephant is unable to defend itself. The rhinoceros is so well-armed that the elephant cannot harm it. It is said that the rhinoceros is fast, impetuous and cunning – inscription on Dürer’s woodcut)

Albrecht Dürer: "Rhinocerus" (1515)

The arrival of Vasco da Gama in Calicut (Kozhikode) in southern India on the 20th of May of the year 1498 was a stroke of bad luck for one particular Indian rhino. 17 years later, the poor thing was dragged aboard of the good ship “Nossa Senhora da Ajuda“ as part of a gift exchange between the King of Portugal and Sultan Muzafar II of Cambay in the Gujarat region, sailed for 120 days across the Indian Ocean and past the Cape of Good Hope into the Atlantic along the recently established sea route to India and arrived in Lisbon only to be pitted by his new royal owner Manuel I against an elephant, because the curious monarch had read in Pliny that the two pachyderms were mortal enemy and no one in Europe over the last 1.200 years had the chance to test if this was true. The rhino, understandably bad tempered, attacked and put the elephant to flight. With his scientific curiosity satisfied, Manuel decided to make the rhino a present for the Medici Pope Leo X to say thank you for getting half of the world as sphere of influence under the Treaty of Tordesillas.

The real thing

, the poor rhino was shipped on board of another vessel bound for Italy that unfortunately sank off La Spezia with all hands and odd-toed ungulates. The body of the rhino was salvaged though, sent back to Portugal, taxidermied and finally arrived in Rome in 1516, only to disappear again, this time for good, during the Sacco di Roma in 1527. By then, the beast was already a cultural icon. A couple of days after its arrival in Europe a Lisbon merchant had described the rhino to a trade partner in Nuremburg who was a patron of Albrecht Dürer – who created his famous, if anatomically rather vague woodcut showing the surface of the animal armoured like a knight, giving rise to the German name for Indian rhinos – “Panzernashorn” (armoured rhino). Dürer’s imagination of the beast was to be the most often circulated depiction of the species and appeared even in school books until 1930s as faithful image of an Indian Rhinoceros.

Depicted below is the Japanese artist Kazuhiko Nakamura’s Steampunk interpretation of Dürer’s woodcut from 2010, found on

More about Dürer’s iconic rhino on: