Facsimile of Dürer's Rhinoceros woodcut print

Dürer's Rhinoceros woodcut print contains several errors, including an extra horn on the rhino's back.

Source: Natural History Museum, London, Library and Archives 

The Legacy of Dürer's Rhinoceros

Dürer's woodcut print of a rhinoceros is as iconic as it is inaccurate. In this article we explore the legacy of this artwork and how it shaped public perception for more than 200 years after its creation. In 1515, German artist Albrecht Dürer created the woodcut without ever actually seeing a rhino for himself with his own eyes.  Instead he used a description from a letter and a sketch created by an unknown artist who had seen the rhino.

An inaccurate interpretation 

With an extra horn on its back and armoured plates instead of leathery skin, Dürer's rhino is not particularly accurate, which is understandable given that he based it on a written account and a sketch by another artist. However, what is surprising is that his rhino became a visual icon while other, more accurate, interpretations created at the time faded into the background.

Dürer was not the only artist to produce a likeness of the rhino, other artists, including his contemporaries Hans Burgkmair and Francesco Grannaci, also produced artworks. So why did Dürer's rhino rise to prominence? In part it had to do with his savvy use of print, by creating a woodcut, the print could be easily reproduced, helping to spread the image as far and wide as possible. This mass production, as well as the inclusion of the print in multiple subsequent natural history volumes, meant that it entered into the public consciousness and was soon perceived  as the true likeness.  

An image of a facisimile of Durer's rhino

Created in 1515, Dürer's image had a significant impact on natural history. 

Source: Natural History Museum, London, Library and Archives 

Genda: the inspiration behind the woodcut

In 1515, a rhino landing in Portugal was a grand spectacle and the cause of much excitement. The rhino had been gifted to King Manuel I of Portugal by Sultan Muzafar II of Gujaratm, India. King Manuel named the rhino Genda after the Gujarat word for ball. Fed on hay and rice instead of its typical diet of grass, it is a small wonder that the rhino survived the long journey from India to Lisbon by sea.

Genda was the first rhino to be seen in Europe since the time of Ancient Rome. The last written account was by Pliny, who records one being kept at the time of Pompey the Great, from around 106 BC to 48 BC . Back then rhinos were considered quasi-mythical creatures and were often mentioned in the same breath as unicorns. With it being more than 1,500 years since a rhino had stepped foot in Europe, the excitement surrounding Genda's arrival in Lisbon in 1515 was understandable. 

It's said that King Manuel wanted to see which would win in a fight between a rhino and an elephant, but first-hand reports say that the noise of the crowd panicked the elephant, which escaped before the event could begin. It is likely that Dürer's addition of armour to the rhino came from the protective gear it was wearing for this event. 

Following this debacle, King Manuel gifted Genda to Pope Leo X, but sadly the boat transporting the rhino sank before completing its journey to Italy. Chained to the deck and unable to swim to safety, Genda drowned. The body was recovered and sent back to Lisbon to be stuffed and put on display. 

Replication of Dürer's errors in the book History of Animals

Conrad Gessner replicated Dürer's errors in his book History of Animals. 

Replicating the rhinoceros

Dürer's woodcut cemented the idea of how a rhino should look in people's mindsets . His work inspired ceramicists, goldsmiths, metalworkers, painters and sculptors from Europe and Asia for more than two centuries. Our display The Lost Rhino features a print of Dürer's Rhinoceros along with four books that were all influenced by it. 

Swiss physician Conrad Gessner's History of Animals, which attempted to record all known animals including mythical creatures, contains an image of a rhino that was based on Dürer's print. Produced in 1551, just 36 years after Dürer's print, the book was ground-breaking at the time, as publications about nature typically didn't feature illustrations. 

Page from Michael Bernhard Valentini's Museum of Museums

Michael Bernhard Valentini included the rhino in his book Museum of Museums.

Source: Natural History Museum, London, Library and Archives 

The influence of Dürer's rhino can again be seen all too well in the travelogue Fourth Part of the India Orientalis Series in Which There is Trading for the First Time, Volume VII produced in 1600. Once again, the extra horn and armour plating make an appearance, this time in a work created by engraver Theodor de Bry. By the late 1600s, however, rhinos had once again been brought to Europe and people could see what they looked like for themselves first hand. Yet despite this, Dürer's idea of the extra, smaller horn and armour endured. 

Around this time, engraver Franz Ertinger produced a rhino engraving for the book Diversity of Animals, Flowers, Fruits and Insects Drawn from Nature, which he still based on Dürer's image. In the same period, Michael Bernhard Valentini wrote Museum of Museums, a book about early private museums that covers curiosity cabinets and collections as diverse as animals, metals, fossils, coins, shells, unicorns and physics.

Restoring the real rhinoceros

Dürer's interpretation of the rhino remained the preeminent image of the creature in European culture up until the late-eighteenth century when a touring rhino called Miss Clara became a media sensation. Miss Clara was greeted by roaring crowds and even introduced to royalty, with many images and sculptures being made of her likeness. 

Image of Miss Clara the touring rhino by J E Ridinger (ca. 1748).

The European tour of Miss Clara resulted in more realistic images of rhinos such as this one by J E Ridinger (ca. 1748). 

In addition to the Miss Clara images, the rise of European travel to India and Africa and the emergence of public zoos meant that more and more people could see rhinos for themselves. Together zoo exhibits, more realistic natural history illustrations and the invention of photography eventually toppled Dürer's dominance. Yet today, his woodcut print still remains one of the most widely replicated images of a rhino.