Albrecht Dürer
Rhinocerus (Rhinoceros), c. 1515 AD
Ink on paper
248 (height) x 317 (width) mm
Nuremberg, Germany

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This print by the renowned German artist Albrecht Dürer, which can be viewed in the British Museum’s Prints & Drawings Study Room, commemorates the arrival of a live Indian rhinoceros gifted by the Sultan to the king of Portugal in 1515. While the overall form of the animal seems correct, closer examination reveals bizarre anatomical details such as a corkscrew-like neck horn and whiskered chin, in addition to armor plating and scales in place of skin. Previously, Europeans had only encountered this exotic animal through descriptions in classical texts, such as Pliny’s Natural History, and its arrival in Lisbon caused a sensation across the continent. Dürer, wanting to capitalize on the event but having never seen a rhinoceros in person, used written descriptions and a sketch to create this fantastical image, and utilized new printing press technology to produce and sell thousands of copies of the print throughout Europe. This led to the false notion that his rhinoceros was an accurate portrayal, a belief that endured for at least 300 years. It continues to live on as one of the most influential images in Western art, and reflects larger historical ideas, such as Renaissance Europe’s growing fascination with the ancient world, and the growing power of Portugal in global navigation, trade, and colonization.

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