Sunday rhinoceros blogging

Durer was not so ignorant on rhinos as one eminent art historian thinks.

The British Museum is 250 years old this year. An extract from the anniversary lecture of its Director, the art historian and successful museum professional Neil MacGregor:

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.)

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web