Monday 29 December 2014

boilerplate or ultramar

Abrecht Dürer’s famous and celebrated woodcut of an India rhinoceros—which the artist never saw in person, has much more than æsthetic value, approaching the crossroads of modernity from all possible angles. The trading magnates of Europe were cut off from Asia via the overland route, the Silk Road severed by the Ottoman Empire, and so they sought other ways to reach China and India. Spain opted to reach the East by sailing West and Portuguese explorers scaled the African coast on a southerly trip to round the Cape of Good Hope and onward across the Indian ocean. Seamanship and navigation had reached a level of sophistication that made such long voyages possible and profitable. There was, however, the problem of competing colonial claims to lands and exclusive trading outposts. The kings of Spain and Portugal eventually turned to Pope Leo X to settle matters and both sides tried to woo a blessing from the Pontiff. In 1494, the Treaty of Tordesilhas settled the dispute to a degree by dividing the world outside of Europe, Africa and Asia, between the two maritime empires. Keeping up patronage, however, was important and Portuguese King Manuel I had merchants in Goa fetch a rhinoceros and bring it to Lisbon, via Saint Helena.
People were absolutely astonished to see such a beast, which was unknown in Europe since Roman times—the animal described by the classic naturalist Pliny but generally regarded the rhino as some legendary creature. Vilified and curious, Europeans at this time were also rediscovering elements of their heritage that had gone missing during the Dark Ages. The Dark Ages weren’t all that grim and backwards but it is interesting to think how we know more of the Romans than people half a millennium nearer to them, and ruins were being excavated and art uncovered that no one suspected. Manuel was keen on getting this exotic specimen, however, to present to the Pope—thinking it would complement his pet white elephant Hanno, which the Pope rode around the streets of Rome on. Sadly, after being admired in Lisbon and communicated to draughtsman Dürer, the rhinoceros went down in a shipwreck off the coast of La Spezia and never made it to Rome—doubly sad because the rhinoceros is an able swimmer and probably would have survived had he not been chained to the deck. Of course, this print became as famous as it did and still remains in circulation because of emerging printing-technology in Dürer’s home-haunt of Nürnberg, another aspect of the modern age.