Dürer’s famous drawing of a rhinoceros was one of the items in Sloane’s collection that first went on show 250 years ago this month. It is, I think, a good emblem of the museum — and not just because some would think museums are slow-moving, rather dimwitted and insensitive to external stimulus, but because Dürer had never seen a rhinoceros. He had read a report of this rhinoceros shipped from India to Portugal, and on the basis of the best information available he created an idea of a world he didn’t know. It’s exactly what the museum is for: to use the information available, construct an image of what we don’t experience — and it will be wrong, but it is better than nothing.
And here she is.
Poor Dürer, condemned to make up his rhinoceros in a pretty Just So story! We all know what rhinos really look like. As Kipling wrote in his Just So story:
Every rhinoceros has great folds in his skin and a very bad temper, all on account of the cake-crumbs inside.
Not at all like the woodcut. But Best Beloved, are you as absolutely certain as the Director of the British Museum that Albrecht Dürer, arrogant Renaissance genius, builder of perspective machines, and learned humanist, was quite wrong? Before you answer, consider for a moment the powers of observation of nature shown in this.
My answer is below the jump.
The original model for Dürer’s rhinoceros had not arrived in Lisbon from East Africa, where Portugal had no colonies at the time, but through its new trading-posts in India. Here is a photo of an Indian rhinoceros (rhinoceros unicornis L), encased in knobbly semi-rigid armour plates.
Do not tease the rhinoceros; and do not patronise the past.
(My apologies if the page took a long time to load, but in this case I had to use quite high-resolution images.)