Dürer’s rhino and the birth of the written press


500 years ago, in 1516, the first rhino seen in Europe since the days of the Roman Empire drowned off the coast of Italy in a shipwreck. The Indian rhino had been a gift to King Manuel I of Portugal from one of his colonial governors, who had originally received it from Sultan Muzafar II of Gujarat. The rhino caused a sensation during its exhibition in Lisbon. It was given back to Pope Leo X when the ship he was on sank. Yet the hapless rhino, so far from home, has achieved a sort of immortality in art.

For that was the rhino portrayed by Albrecht Dürer in his famous woodcut of 1515. Dürer, one of the most established and famous artists of the time, was like most people in Europe: he didn’t never saw the rhino. It relied on a written description and a sketch sent from Lisbon. Many more people have come to see his footprint than the actual rhino. Indeed, for two centuries, its very successful draw was what Europeans thought of when they imagined a rhino, in large part because it was continually reproduced in natural histories.

Dürer’s view of the exotic animal is highly stylized, with a plate-like skin and a second, smaller horn in the center of the shoulders above the head. Rhinoceros unicornis has only one horn; both species of African rhino are double-horned, which can be confusing. Or maybe Dürer was thinking of hardy unicorns? He was a renowned animal and plant artist, but in this case, it was necessary to appeal to his imagination.

Dürer’s rhino also has unexpected significance in media history. This was the time when mass-produced images really took off. An edition of 4000-5000, as in this case, was revolutionary compared to the beginning of the 15th century. As Jesse Feiman notes, some have argued that printed images like Dürer’s “rivaled or even supplanted” text from new printing presses. There were few literate people, after all. The images could speak directly to many more people. It was the start of the Protestant Reformation: the only book known to most people, the Bible, was tightly controlled by the clergy. But mass-produced images like the rhino have spread everywhere, especially in pirated copies.

The power of engraving depends on the ability of engravers to repeat an image over and over again, but Feiman challenges this notion by analyzing how Dürer’s image has changed over time, especially as the matrix of original, a block of wood, has worn and cracked with repeats. use. The canonical prints surviving in museums only scratch the surface of “the shifting meanings, shifting audiences, and shifting notions of authorship and authenticity” throughout the history of the image.

Today we see versions of this artist’s vision of a fabulous animal in several museums. These images have become something of a memorial to the actual rhino, though purely historically inaccurate, and still speak to us half a millennium later.


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By: Jesse Feiman

Art in Print, Vol. 2, n ° 4 (November – December 2012), pp. 22-26

Art criticism in print

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