Five hundred years ago, in the summer of 1515, an Indian rhinoceros arrived in Europe after four months at sea. It had been a gift from an Indian sultan to the governor of Portugal’s Indian territories, who sent it to Lisbon for the menagerie of Manuel I. It was the first rhinoceros in Europe since Roman times; like the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, the rhinoceros’s appearance in Lisbon created a continent-wide sensation.
The earliest sketch of the rhinoceros dates from July of 1515, accompanying a poem written by a Florentine named Giovanni Penni — one of the many poems, and many sketches, and letters, and rhinoceros gargoyles that spread a rhino-craze across Renaissance Europe. The rhinoceros drew crowds; a big boisterous audience came to watch it fight one of King Manuel’s elephants, in a test of Pliny the Elder’s conviction that elephants and rhinos are mortal enemies. In fact, the two pachyderms didn’t feel like fighting — though the rhino was declared the victor by default after the uneasy elephant withdrew from the field.
The rhino’s legend grew; it reached unicorn levels of prestige, and King Manuel decided to make a gift of it to Pope Leo X, in an effort to win papal approval of his claims in da Gama’s East Indies. The rhinoceros departed Lisbon for Rome in December 1515; in January 1516, it put in an appearance on an island off Marseilles, so King Francis I of France could get a look at it. Days later, off the Italian Riviera, a sudden storm wrecked the rhino’s ship and — pulled down by his shackles — the rhinoceros drowned. It would be 61 years before another rhino made it to Europe; the deceased specimen’s body was recovered and returned to Portugal, for stuffing.
But the rhino’s legend lived on. Months earlier — when the rhino was still fresh off the boat — a letter that described the rhinoceros, and an accompanying sketch, had made their way to Nuremberg, and Albrecht Dürer.
A Seattle biotech company called Pembient announced a new plan to staunch the bloody, inhumane, and short-sighted business of rhino poaching.
Dürer was then at the height of his powers, and working under the patronage of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I. The rhinoceros mystique captured Dürer’s imagination; using the letter — and furnishing absent details from his own imagination — he produced a rhinoceros woodcut that quickly became a sensation (arguably) even greater than the live article. The woodcut was not strictly accurate — it showed the rhino with a second horn between its shoulders, and somewhat scaly skin — but its obvious, virtuosic naturalism captured everyone’s imagination. It was printed in its first edition in 1515; new copies were still being stamped in the 17th century, a hundred years after Dürer’s death. It was reproduced over and over in statues and reliefs and engravings, and in the emblem of Alessandro de’ Medici. A copy hung in Salvador Dali’s childhood bedroom, and you can see its gentle animation in Dali’s work; in the 1950s, he cast a statue version of the woodcut, which stands in Marbella, Spain. Long after the Dürer print’s inaccuracies were known, it was still regularly featured in zoological guides — and, until the 1930s, in German school textbooks.
Five hundred years ago, it helped kick off a love affair with the rhinoceros that the Western world has never gotten over. Five hundred years after Manuel’s rhinoceros arrived in Lisbon — almost to the day — a Seattle biotech company called Pembient announced a new plan to staunch the bloody, inhumane, and short-sighted business of rhino poaching. Rhinos are poached in enormous quantities to meet the demand in Asia for rhino-horn-based traditional “medicine.” As Asia gets richer, the demand gets greater — and the rhinos are on their last legs. The demand for rhino-horn cures for everything from hangovers to cancer has all but wiped out Asia’s indigenous rhino population; the African branch of the species won’t last much longer if things carry on as they have been — several African sub-species have already gone extinct, the most recent in 2011.
Pembient’s idea is to create a keratin paste, chemically indistinguishable from rhino horn, and use it as “ink” to print fake rhino horns in 3D. The company hopes that by flooding the market with counterfeit horns, it can drive down the price of real horns so far that poaching will no longer be a profitable business. What a time to be alive! Dürer would doubtless approve.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.