What happens when the retired keeper of rare books at Washington's Smithsonian Institute hears a rumour in Rome that a rhinoceros, an elephant, and even a dinosaur once gambolled through the pope's quarters in the Vatican? Where there is smoke there might be fire, thought Silvio Bedini, and so began his inspiration that begot this amusing book. The author's curiosity peaked when he learned that the mysterious "dinosaur" bones recently unearthed during repairs in the Belvedere Court were not Jurassic but the remains of an imposing Indian elephant named Hanno. A trove of 16th-century Latin documents confirmed that "Hanno mortuus est" on June 8, 1516, mourned by Pope Leo X, who had kept the beast for two years as his beloved pet.
Bedini's unravelling of this nearly forgotten tale is much more than a mere expose of quirky Renaissance pet-pampering. The pope's elephant was the very symbol of Leo's brief but cataclysmic reign, which began with the golden age of Christian conquest and ended with the iron age of reformation.
King Manuel I of Portugal, hoping to gain the favour of the new pontiff in 1514, particularly to receive the latter's blessing for Portugal's right to the Eastern Indies, decided to send a unique gift, a trained Indian elephant and its Moorish mahout, to be delivered in grand style by the Portuguese ambassador. Landing in Italy some 70 miles north of Rome, the elephant, accompanied now by an exponentially growing cort ge, trudged overland for several days to the Eternal City. Bedini's description of this procession along the Via Flaminia, which must have looked like the Grand March from Aida, is worth the price of the book alone. Lovers of Rome will wax nostalgic in Bedini's recounting, street by street, the elephant's advance through ogling crowds on every familiar roof-top from the Porta del Popolo down the Via Ripetta, across the Tiber to the Castel Sant'Angelo where Pope Leo, dressed in splendour, awaited like a child on Christmas morning for the first glimpse of his new toy.
And what a romp. Pope Leo was delighted with Hanno, whose acrobatic tricks he loved to show off to every visitor and, of course, to the Roman populace who adored the elephant as much as he. Indeed, Hanno magnified in Leo all those quintessential traits we associate today with "Renaissance man": scientific wonder, love of exotic curiosities, literary brilliance, artistic sensitivity and cruel aestheticism.
During Hanno's short Roman life, the Pope wrote Latin sonnets to him, artists were commissioned to paint and sculpt him and, to His Holiness's dubious amusement, Hanno's charm was even exploited publicly to humiliate persons in papal disfavour. When Hanno died suddenly, Pope Leo was distraught. He composed a florid Latin epitaph. Raphael was ordered to paint a posthumous fresco of Hanno lifesize to be displayed, along with the epitaph carved on a marble plaque, in St Peter's Square where it stood until removed in the next century to make way for Bernini's colonnade. Not all Christendom shared the pope's maudlin sentiment about his dead elephant, however. Radical church reformers already muttering about Leo's venality leaped on Hanno's obsequies as evidence of the Pope's moral turpitude. Indeed, it might be said that Martin Luther's famous 99 theses nailed to the church door of Wittenberg only a year after Hanno's death also reflect the backlash of this affair.
Meanwhile, King Manuel, so pleased that his pachyderm gift had made such an impression, decided to send yet another, this time an Indian rhinoceros, to remind the pope of Portugal's claims to the riches of the East. The beast had already caused a sensation in Lisbon. Someone sent a sketch of it to Albrecht Durer from which the German artist made his famous woodcut of 1515. But this part of Bedini's inspiring rumour had a less fortunate ending. The ship carrying the beast to Rome foundered, and the rhinoceros drowned. Its body, however, was retrieved, stuffed, and eventually found its way to the Holy City.
While Bedini sometimes lapses into overly detailed antiquarianism, his book is a "good read'' for history buffs. Art historians who think they know all about Rome will be amazed at how many images of the Pope's elephant Bedini has uncovered, and which can be still be seen in all sorts of unexpected places.
Samuel Y. Edgerton is professor of art history, Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, United States.
The Pope's Elephant
Author - Silvio A. Bedini
ISBN - 1 85754 7 0
Publisher - Carcanet Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 320