Albrecht Dürer |

Albrecht Dürer |”Das Rhinocerus” | 1515 | Kupferstichkabinett, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin; smb.museum

Albrecht Dürer created his famous woodcut of a rhinoceros in 1515 based on a written description and an anonymous sketch of an Indian rhino that had arrived in Lisbon earlier that year. The animal was intended as a gift for Pope Leo X from the king of Portugal, but it never reached its destination, perishing in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy.

Dürer’s image is less than accurate, depicting an animal covered with an armor of hard plates, scales on its feet, and a small spiral horn on its back. This is not exactly surprising, considering the artist never saw the actual specimen. What is surprising is that his depiction served as a scientific reference for centuries, despite the existence of a similar but more accurate print by Hans Burgkmair, also from 1515. The similarities between the two images suggest that Burgkmair may have also based his woodcut on the same anonymous sketch.