The Lisbon Rhinoceros

16th Century Lisbon was possibly the most globally connected city of its time. This is the story of what was to become one of its most famous visitors, a rhinoceros who captured the imagination of renaissance Europe, going on to become one of the icons of the Age of Discovery.

‏‏‎ Bartizan depicting a rhinoceros (16th century)Tower of Belém

The story of the Lisbon Rhinoceros 

Unbeknownst to most visitors, a western facing bartizan of the Belém Tower depicts a rhinoceros looking out to the River Tagus. This sculpture portrays King D. Manuel I's  famous pet, the first rhinoceros, since roman times to set foot in Europe.

Northern India – Mughal Empire (1625) by William BaffinKalakriti Archives

In 1514 Afonso de Albuquerque, Governor of Portuguese India wanted to build a fortress in Diu, a city in the kingdom of Cambay (now Gujarat) governed by the Sultan Muzafar.

He was authorised by King D. Manuel I to send an envoy to the Sultan, asking permission to build the fortress. Muzafar did not grant his wish but, grateful for the gifts he received, he gave Albuquerque a rhinoceros.

Chained fast on board and living only on dried straw, hay and cooked rice for the duration of the 4 month journey, the rhino and his Indian handler, finally disembarked where Torre de Belém was being built in May 1515.

Rhinoceros (1515) by Albrecht DürerBritish Museum

The animal's arrival in Lisbon caused great commotion and curiosity, not only in Portugal but in the whole of Europe. Its physical form, weighing more than two metric tonnes and thick, wrinkled skin that formed three large folds, giving the strange appearance of armour.

Based on written descriptions sent back to Nuremberg and other parts of Europe by merchants in Lisbon, Albrecht Dürer created his own depiction of the rhino. Although inaccurate, Dürer’s striking depiction piece of art and became the standard throughout Europe of what rhinos looked like, inspiring dozens of other paintings and artists.

A Rhinoceros Fighting an Elephant (1610) by Hendrik Hondius ILos Angeles County Museum of Art

Remembering Ancient Roman stories about the deadly rivalry between elephants and rhinoceroses, King D. Manuel I decided to see if this was true.

He organised a bout between the two animals to which he also invited the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting, as well as other important guests. When the two beasts were placed opposite each other the elephant panicked and ran away the moment the rhinoceros began to approach it.

Pope Leo (about 1510–1520) by Master of the First Prayer Book of MaximilianThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In 1515 Manuel decided to send a new extraordinary envoy to Rome in order to secure the support of the Pope Leo X in the wake of the ever-growing success of the Portuguese ventures in the Orient and with a view to consolidating his kingdom's international prestige.

View of Genoa (1604) by Anonymous, Italian, 17th centuryThe Metropolitan Museum of Art

The rhinoceros, sporting a green velvet collar decorated with golden roses and carnations, was one of the gifts. The ship left Lisbon in December 1515 but sailed into a violent storm off the coast of Genoa and sunk, killing the whole crew. Although rhinos can swim, because it was tied up the animal also died.

The Elephant Hanno (1516) by Raffaello Sanzio (school of)Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

However, the rhino's body was recovered and when he heard of the disaster, Manuel ordered the rhino to be stuffed and sent to the Pope, as if nothing had happened. But it did not go down so well with the Pope as his previous gift, Hanno the elephant!

In Portugal the rhinoceros was immortalised and a representation of it decorates one of the bartizans in the Tower of Belém.

It can also be can be found in Alcobaça Monastery, where there is a naturalistic full-body representation of the animal in the form of a gargoyle in the Cloister of Silence.

Credits: Story

Isabel Cruz de Almeida
(Director, Tower of Belém)

Belém Tower

Digital Production:
Luis Ramos Pinto
(Directorate-General for Cultural Heritage, Portugal)

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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