Thursday, April 9, 2009

Obscure Elephant Facts II

Hanno became the talk of the town. Cardinal Giuliano Medici commissioned the sculpture Goivanno of Udine to make a fountain in the form of an elephant squirting water from its trunk. The Villa Madama, where this fountain was built is now the official residence of the prime minister of Italy, and although the fountain itself was long ago destroyed, fragments of the head and trunk of Hanno can still be seen. The Pope’s nephew, Lorenzo, asked for a lend of Hanno for a grand procession he was organizing in Florence but fearing that the long trek north might endanger the creature, the request was refused. The great Renaissance painter Raphael was working in the Vatican at the time, and he included Hanno in a fresco he was doing in the Loggia. The original is now lost, but a copy was made by an unknown artist, probably one of Raphael’s students, and is now in the Stiftung Museen Preussischer in Berlin. From this drawing we can say that Hanno was a young adult, probably male, with small tusks (or more correctly, tushes), hairs on his head and in fairly good condition. This last point is important because it shows that despite all the travel he had been subjected to, the strange and no doubt inappropriate food he was fed, and the cold winters he had to endure, Hanno was still able to thrive. He must have been docile and used to his mahouts too because the drawing also shows a man astride his back and another fondly and apparently without concern, stroking his trunk. Both mahouts are Europeans, wearing European cloths of the era, but who they were and how and where they learned the art of elephant driving, we shall never know. Another point of interest in this drawing is the two goads or ankushs that both mahouts hold. The usual ankush is in effect a spear of differing length with a hook protruding from near the top end. The mahout on Hanno’s back has this type of ankush but the other man’s is quite different. Instead of a pointed end, it has a crescent and from behind the hook is a spike. Four sharp points instead of the usual two. It is a fearsome looking implement and I have not seen another like it although I suspect it was of Indian origin. Overall, the drawing is extremely detailed and lifelike and the artist has made only one mistake in Hanno’s anatomy - he has depicted the end of the trunk flat rather than with the prehensile ‘finger’ characteristic of Asian elephants. He has also made the trunk just a little longer than it should be, but this may have been done just to emphasize the animals strange appendage.
Pope Leo grew very fond of Hanno, calling him by pet names, showing him off to guests, and having him dressed up in silk and gold brocade. But despite or perhaps because of all the attention he received, he died only two years after his arrival, leaving the Pope inconsolable. The Epistolae Obscuroum Virorum mocked the pontiffs grief thus. "T’is dead and the Pope is very sorry and they say that he will give a thousand ducats for the elephant for it was a marvelous beast, having a long snout in great abundance and when it saw the Pope it fell to its knees before him and said in a terrible voice, Bar! Bar! Bar!" There are different versions of why Hanno died. One says he suffocated after being covered with gold leaf for a glittering procession he was to take part in. According to this version, the Pope spent nearly 5000 gold pieces on medicine and treatment trying to revive his ailing pet. Another account says he fell into the Tiber and the heavy wooden castle on his back caused him to sink and drown. Whatever the case, Hanno was buried near the Bronze Gate leading to the Vatican Gardens where an inscription was set up. It read " Under this colossal mountain I lie, a colossal elephant, who King Emmanuel, after conquering the East, gave as a gift to Leo X. What nature carried off, Raphael of Urbino reproduced with his art". This monument was destroyed during the sack of Rome later in the 16th century. Hanno’s influence in the Eternal City continued for many years after his death in the numerous images of elephants that were used to decorate fountains, gateways and buttresses. One of the best known of these is the elephant supporting an Egyptian obelisk outside the church of Santa Maria Minerva and which was calved by Lorenzo Bernini in 1667.
As a side note, another famous European artist who drew a Sri Lankan elephant was Rembrandt van Rijin (1606-69). In 1637 a circus arrived in Amsterdam and among the sights on display was an elephant from Sri Lanka named Hansken. Just how this elephant got to Holland is not known. The Dutch did not take over the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka until 1656. Rembrandt must have been impressed by the strange creature and he did a quick but masterly sketch of it in charcoal. The drawing is now in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina in Vienna.
The top picture is said to be 'from the studio of Raphael.'


Anonymous said...

Fascinating stuff, bhante. I am sure you know the terrible stories of Jumbo (killed by a train) and Topsy (electrocuted), or Mary (hanged). I didn't know them until quite recently. Thanks for giving us the earlier stories. Somebody really should write a book someday about the history of our (Western) fascination with elephants.

Anonymous said...

And the often sad consequences for the animals.