This rendition of a rhinoceros is the most famous in the history of art. Dürer never saw this specimen; he based his celebrated woodcut on an account and an anonymous sketch of a rhinoceros that travelled to Lisbon from India in 1515. The sketch was sent to Dürer from Valentin Ferdinand, a German printer who lived in Portugal. Dürer transcribed the inscription that accompanied the sketch onto a drawing he made of the rhinoceros. It reads:
In the year 1515 on 1 May was brought to our King of Portugal to Lisbon such a living animal from India called a rhinoceros. Because it is such a marvel, I had to send it to you in this representation made after it. It has the color of a toad and is covered and well protected with thick scales, and in size it is as large as an elephant, but lower, and is the deadly enemy of the elephant. It has on the front of the nose a strong sharp horn: and when the animal comes near the elephant to fight, it always first whets its horn on the stones and runs at the elephant pushing its head between his forelegs. Then it rips the elephant open where the skin is thinnest and then gores him. Therefore, the elephant fears the rhinoceros; for he always gores him whenever he meets an elephant. For he is well armed, very lively and alert. The animal is called rhinoceros in Greek and Latin but in India, gomda (note 1).
In his creative interpretation, Dürer illustrates this strongly built mammal with a thick skin of armor plating. He highlights the heavy texture of the animal’s body and renders it even more apparent through the use of a woodblock. By transferring the original design from his drawing onto a woodblock, Dürer evinces the texture of the mammal’s skin through the embossment left on the paper of individually printed impressions. In a further attempt to magnify the animal’s strength, Dürer inaccurately arms the rhinoceros with a sharp dorsal horn, seen beside the letter ‘R’ on the woodcut. Even if Dürer is guilty of a misinterpretation, he effectively captures the character of the animal. This rhino is a true marvel of the animal kingdom.
The rhinoceros was received in Europe as an exotic specimen, and other artists, including Hans Burgkmair and Francesco Grannaci (possibly Giovanni Penni as well) created images of it (note 2). However, the rhino pictures of these artists remained neglected, while Dürer’s woodcut persisted as a visual icon. Dürer’s technical skills are truly apparent when one compares his design of the rhino with those executed by other artists. The viewer’s appreciation for Dürer’s pure talent and superior display of draftsmanship increases exponentially, especially besides the image that forms part of Penni’s journal - a design that borders the comical. Countless artists imitated Dürer’s rhinoceros in sculptures, tapestries, and ceramics. Even naturalists, such as Conrad Gesner, made use of Dürer’s representation in their scientific volumes of natural history. Dürer purposefully pulled a high number of impressions off of the original woodblock in order to maximize the dissemination of his image. By utilizing the print medium, Dürer could widely promote himself as a student of nature, and it directly relates to his decision of having approached the story of St. Eustace as an engraved and reproducible piece of art.
Dürer modified the caption that accompanies the rhino image when he transferred the design from the drawing to the woodcut. In the woodcut, he emphasizes his own skills and ability to recreate such an animal even though he did not see it physically. Dürer makes a strategic adjustment in describing the animal to proclaim the trustworthiness of his print. He compares the rhinoceros to a speckled tortoise instead of a toad. This is significant because a speckled tortoise’s skin is hard, and accordingly, its texture shares greater similarities with a rhinoceros than a toad. This logical comparison lends Dürer credibility, and he persuades viewers to believe that he reproduces the rhino in “its complete form” (note 3). His virtuosic display of draftsmanship challenges the value of practicing firsthand observation. Beyond being aesthetically pleasing, Dürer’s The Rhinoceros proves that in the Renaissance, people sought to acquire knowledge not only through the physical encounter of natural elements, but also through visual materials that were perceived as realistic and lifelike.
note 1. Cited and translated from the original in Susan Dackerman ed., Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe, (Cambridge, 2011), 167.
note 2. Giovanni Penni wrote a journal about the mammal’s presence on the European continent and an image of a rhinoceros serves as the title page of his journal. The creator of this image has not been identified, and consequently, the design may or may not have been produced by Penni. T. H. Clarke gives a detailed account of the artists that produced images of the rhino when the animal visited Lisbon in 1515. See, T. H. Clarke, The Rhinoceros from Dürer to Stubbs 1515-1799, (London, 1986), 16-27.
note 3. For the full transcription, refer to Dackerman, 167-68.