The Pope’s Elephant, by Silvio Bedini

Und dann und wann ein weißer Elefant.
 —Rilke, “Das Karussel”

Pope Leo X Medici lived like a king, and all the kings of Europe paid him tribute, even from new possessions reached by sail. King Manuel I of Portugal sent a mission to Rome in 1513 led by explorer Tristão da Cunha, who had named south Atlantic islands after himself. In addition to a gold chalice, gold tabernacle, vestments of gold cloth, and an altar frontal  “sewn with countless pearls and precious stones valued at more than 60,000 ducats, ” the mission included a cheetah, two leopards, “numerous parrots,” a Persian horse, and a three-year-old Indian elephant named Hanno.

Just getting Hanno to Rome was a feat of engineering and doggedness. His weight required special hoists from ship to dock and meant that transport by wagon was out of the question. Hanno made the last leg of seventy miles from Porto Ercole to Rome on his own four legs, stopping from time to time to recuperate from the effects of Roman roads on his footpads.

The arrival of Hanno and presentation to the pope became a story of its own. Hanno’s mahout had trained him to bow down low upon meeting Leo, which he did, and then followed up the obeisance with a burst of water sucked up from a barrel, dousing Leo’s courtiers. The pope was delighted.

Hanno settled down into the papal menagerie, where he was the star attraction. At several points, Bedini tries to make the case for Hanno as the pope’s favorite pet, but there’s not much evidence to support that part of the story.

The pope used Hanno at one point to embarrass an unfortunate abbot, Giacomo Baraballo, who was made to ride the elephant in a kind of fool’s parade. This tale was often a chief exhibit to show the hopeless corruption of the papal court.

Unfairly absent from the book’s title is another unusual papal pet described in the book, the pope’s rhinoceros, who also became known far and wide, even becoming the subject of an influential drawing by Albrecht Dürer. There is a novel by Lawrence Norfolk called The Pope’s Rhinoceros, but Bedini doesn’t mention it here.

The book contains several dozen illustrations, including drawings of the animals, portraits, and maps. This is a scholar’s book; it really is upside-down, with the text less of a narrative than a compilation of notes. You like this kind of thing or you don’t. Once I figured out what I was reading, I admired it immensely.

 

Giacomo Baraballo on Hanno

Giacomo Baraballo on Hanno

 

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