A Fantastical Creature

Written By Joanne O'Sullivan

Posted 07/14/15

Updated 07/14/15

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The Indian spice trade, Portuguese royalty, and a shipwreck: what do these adventure-story elements have to do with Biltmore House? There’s a connection to them in the Salon, in the form of a print by the famed Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer.

It was 1515 and King Manuel I of Portugal was trying to reach an agreement with an Indian sultan in order to build a fort to protect Portugal’s growing trade operations in India. Negotiations had failed, but as a goodwill gesture, the sultan gifted the king a rhinoceros, shipped off to Lisbon via Goa on the Nossa Senhora da Ajuda.

Something To Write Home About

The rhino made quite a splash when it arrived in Lisbon. No one on the continent had seen one in living memory and the rhinoceros had, in fact, been considered to be a creature of myth. A German merchant happened to be in the city when the animal arrived, and sent a letter about it to a friend in Nürnberg (Dürer’s home town) enclosing a sketch.

“This is an accurate representation,” wrote the merchant. “It is the color 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…” Although the letter wasn’t written to him, Dürer saw it, along with the sketch. He copied the drawing first in pen and ink; that rendering is now in the collection of the British Museum. Later, he made a woodblock print based on the drawing. Close inspection of the print reveals that it isn’t exactly accurate. There’s an extra horn (placed on its back) and the armored plates resemble those of an armadillos. There’s an extra plate hanging at the rhino’s throat. Although the original description did mention scales, real rhinos don’t have them. Dürer is believed to have made between 4,000-5,000 prints of the rhino, which made their way around Europe.

An Enduring Image

The print became the de facto illustration of a rhinoceros for centuries, regardless of its inaccuracies. Dürer’s rhino was used in German textbooks as recently as the 1930s. As for the rhino that served as inspiration, it sadly lost its life in a shipwreck near Genoa on its way to Rome after the King Manuel decided to re-gift it to Pope Leo X. It was over half a century before another rhino was seen in Europe.

The Rhinoceros is just one of the 18 Dürer prints on the South Wall in the Salon, part of George Vanderbilt’s 1600-plus-piece collection of woodblock prints, engravings, etchings, photogravures and aquatints. Be sure to check out The Rhinoceros and the many other prints on your next visit to Biltmore House.

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