A poem by Li Yu

Painting of Zhao Bo Yu (Beijing Palace Museum), detail(烏夜啼)


Lín huā xiè liăo chūn hóng,
tài cōng cōng.
Wúnài zhāo lái hán yŭ wăn lái fēng.
Yānzhī lèi,
xiàng liú zuì,
jĭ shí chóng.
Zìshì rénshēng cháng hèn shuĭ cháng dōng.

(To the tune of “Crows crying at night.”)

The flower of the forest is fading, the red
spring is over
too soon.
That’s how it has to be:
cold is the morning rain, the evening wind.
Rouged tears
drunken solitude –
when will come again?
Forever painful is life, forever
to the east runs the river.

This poem could be given the title Separation, but it mustn’t.

One reason is that Chinese poets never give title to their poems. Let the reader give one. The lack of the title is an important component of a Chinese poem. At best they indicate the title of a tune if the poem is composed to a tune as in this case. The title of the tune sometimes keynotes the poem, and sometimes stands in a telling contrast to it, as the poem composed to the tune of The joy of meeting by the same Li Yu, the last emperor of the Tang dynasty, in the prison, on the night before his execution.

And another reason is that in that case we would indiscreetly divulge what Li Yu carefully hide in the middle of the poem: rouged tears and drunken solitude. The scrupulous Chinese commentaries warn the unexperienced reader that “these two verses are two personifications.” Another version of the poem has 留人醉 “a man remained drunken” instead of “drunken solitude,” but our version is more beautiful.

The trusting question, “when will come again?” – what? everything that was mentioned and was not mentioned in the poem – is answered by Li Yu himself in the last verse. In China, which is one gigantic slope from the Himalaya to the Yellow Sea, it is a natural law that all the rivers run to the east, none of them flows backwards.

This question, borrowed from the emperor, was answered in a more cruel way by the great archaizing poet of the turn of the century, Wang Guowei who in 1927, when the river of the imperial power definitely flew away, and the revolutionary troops entered the Forbidden City, drowned himself into the lake of the Summer Palace so that he should not see the new world. Before that, perhaps to draw strength, he extracted in one single poem the various verses written by Li Yu on separation. It also begins like Spring in the Jade Pavilon, just as one of the most renowned ci’s of Li Yu. At the end of this poem he replies, not that much to the emperor who died a thousand years before, but rather to himself:

My ruler, look, the flower on this year’s branch is not the flower of the tree of the last year

because the spring of the year of 1928 will also come, and magnolia trees will blossom on the shore of the Kunming Lake as they also blossom today; but that spring he already does not want to see.

We will also write about the poem of Wang Guowei. But before that we want to translate the other poems by Li Yu quoted by him.

Around harvest

Úbeda, Mar de olivos
On Sunday morning system administrator and olive planter Porrozillo walked out to the edge of Úbeda, and contemplated with satisfaction his plantation spreading in the Andalusian mar de olivos or sea of olives which promised an abundant harvest. He also took a photo and he sent it to our forum of El País readers.

In the spring we have already written about Úbeda – in whose Carmelitan monastery Saint John of the Cross died in 1591 – a propos of their never ending fiestas, especially of the celebrations of the Holy Week. This photo was made from the promenade named for the great son of the town, the prominent contemporary author Antonio Muñoz Molina, that is from somewhere here. If you cannot sleep, count the olive trees on the map.

On the plantations of Csömör the harvest is already over.

Csömör, end of November 2008
Csömör, end of November 2008

Waiting for the clouds

Pontic Greek musicians

Georgos Xylouris: Ποντιακό μου γιασεμί (My Pontic jasmine), from the CD Ανατολή, ανατολή μου (Anatolia, my Anatolia [or my sunrise]) (2005)

Of the Pontic Greeks I first got to know the music. An implausibly archaic music, with ancient Persian modes and Caucasian, Iranian and even Celtic melodies. Its freely recited melancholic songs and its sword dances of a rugged rhythm, already mentioned by Xenophon in the Anabasis are accompanied almost exclusively by the three-stringed Pontic lyra, a small proto-fiddle of Persian origins widespread all over the Caucasus region, whose round-bodied version is known as kamanche by the Turks, Armenians and Azeries. A music radically different from the folk music of the Balkan and Peloponnesos Greeks or from the rebetika originating from the former Ionian shores. Just as the history, language, culture and identity of the Pontic Greeks is radically different from that of modern Greece.

Pontic Greek lyra/kamanche player on a wedding car
The ancestors of Pontic Greeks settled before the first millennium B.C. on the eastern shores of the Black Sea, the land of the Golden Fleece – the Argonauts were modelled after them some centuries later. Due to the regular migration routes of Black Sea fishes and to the fertile sea shores, this region could feed a large population, so that for some centuries they even provided with food the city state of Athens. Map of PontusIn some periods there lived more Greeks here than in Greece itself, and from time to time they also established an independent state of their own. The first time the Persian dynasty that fled here from Alexander the Great, and whose last king Mithridates fought three sanguinary wars against the Romans before surrendering in 65 B.C. Then in 1204 the Byzantine ruler who fled here from the crusaders invading Constantinople, and whose „Trapezunt Empire” was the last independent Greek state to be conquered in 1461 by the Turks. Finally during WWI the local Greeks left alone by the retiring Russian army and standing up against genocide, who proclaimed “the Pontus Republic.” The seven hundred thousand survivors of it – three hundred fifty thousand died – were “repatriated” in 1924 to Greece – which had never been their patria, and whose very language, after three thousand years of separation, was largely unknown to them.

Pontic Greek warriors, Trebizond/Trapezunt/Trabzon
The archive footage of this exodus opens the beautiful and courageous film of Yaşim Ustaoğlu Bulutlari beklerken (Waiting for the clouds, 2003), the very first one in Turkey that, after ninety years, revived the memory of the ousted Pontic Greeks.

In the Cinemas of the Other (2006) written by Gönül Dönmez-Colin on Middle Eastern cinema, the director speaks in detail about the inspiration and the figures of her film.


Barbara Reynolds: Dante, a költő, a politikai gondolkodó, az ember, 2008, könyvborítóFresh and crispy, right from the book factory. This is the very first copy. I hurry to boast of it while it is the only one. Tomorrow the rest will come too, soon they will be out in the bookshops. And I encourage everyone to read it. As Vergilius to Dante, so this book rallies to the support of the reader who lost his way in the archaic language of the Comedy and in the thick of Medieval Tuscan internal politics. It accompanies you from chapter to chapter, from canto to canto through the dark forest of the Comedy, and if you read the two works in parallel with each other, you will certainly reach out to the stars that close each of the three canticas.

The literary review Litera asked for two pages of our Hungarian translation to advertise its publication. In the publishing house we discussed for a while which pages should that be. The description of medieval Florence is beautiful, the deciphering of the identity of the donna gentile or of the mysterious expression tra feltro e feltro is a good detective job, while the investigation about the eventual drugs used by Dante is a complete rubbish, but the publishing house expects to increase with it the number of copies sold. It will be a surprise even to me which pages will finally be published in Litera. I, in any case, proposed those two pages of the epilogue where Barbara Reynolds describes how the last thirteen (!) cantos of the Paradiso were lost and found.

After the funeral ceremonies, his sons Pietro and Jacopo turned their minds to setting his papers in order. To their dismay, they were unable to lay hands on the last 13 cantos of Paradiso. They were certain that their father had finished the work, but the manuscript did not go beyond Canto XX. Where was the rest of it? They knew that it was his practice to send batches of cantos to Can Grande della Scala but enquiries made in that quarter were fruitless. In a state of desperation they were persuaded by friends to try to finish Paradiso themselves. They knew their father’s work well and would later write commentaries on it. They had also tried their hand at verse. Nevertheless, the task was far beyond their abilities.

After about eight months, Jacopo had a dream one night in which his father appeared to him. On being asked by Jacopo if he had finished his poem, Dante replied, ‘Yes, I finished it.’ He then took his son by the hand and showed him a room in a house and touched part of the wall, saying:
Dante halotti maszkja‘Here is what you have been looking for.’ On waking, Jacopo went with a friend to the house and there they found, in a recess in a wall, concealed by a flap of material, a pile of manuscript covered with mildew. They lifted it out and brushed it clean: it was the missing 13 cantos.

This story is beautiful in itself. However, it is even more beautiful what Reynolds leaves here unsaid: that the same story repeated seven centuries later – with her.

She writes about this in her introduction to that recent English translation of the Comedy that she considers as the best and she quotes from it all along her Dante biography. This translation was made by the eminent British writer, classical philologist, Christian humanist and author of detective stories Dorothy L. Sayers, who also happened to be godmother and first master of Barbara Reynolds. She intended it to be the last and greatest opus of her life. However, when she died on December 17, 1957, she left the translation unfinished. She arrived only as far as the twentieth canto of the Paradiso. Thirteen cantos were missing, those thirteen cantos.

Reynolds, who at that time was working on her own main work, the Cambridge Italian Dictionary, regarded it as her duty to complete the translations, and what is more, to complete it exactly like Sayers would have done it. Through the detailed analysis of the cantos hitherto finished she “learned” the style of Sayers, she read through all her works, her correspondence, manuscripts and readings, and then she translated the missing cantos and published the English Comedy. And with this, a “second thread” started in her scholarly work. While she kept working for twenty more years on the Italian Dictionary and on her original topic, the history of 19th-century Italian literature, on the other hand she also translated, after the Comedy, Dante’s first work, the Vita Nuova, she composed from the collected background material the biography of Sayers, she edited her correspondence in five volumes, and finally, with the work of a life, at the age of ninety-two she wrote this biography of Dante.

Totum devicerat orbem

Exercise-book of Aurél Stein from the Dresden Kreuzschule, 1876
The exercise-book of fourteen-year old Aurél Stein from his Dresden school years was opened at these two pages on the Hong Kong exhibition, organized in this March-May by the Oriental Collection of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences to illustrate with manuscripts and photos from the Stein legacy his path of life from his native house in front of the Academy through the Silk Road to the cemetery of Kabul.

Aurél Stein drinking tea in India
It is not clear to which subject this exercise-book belonged, for it includes everything together, just like his later life, from cartography through languages to philological analysis. He failed to learn the lesson of the Ancient wisdom he even noted here in Latin and German. No wonder he did not receive the so much sought-for high school teachership in Kolozsvár, nor any other position in Hungary, never.

Exercise-book of Aurél Stein from the Dresden Kreuzschule, 1876, detailMos hominum est, ut nolint, eundem hominem compluribus rebus excellere.
It is customary of people that they do not like when one excels in more than one thing.

To the right, the sketch of the regions of Bavaria, Württemberg and Baden. The tracing is still uncertain, but the geographical structure is clearly built. To the left, Latin syntactical exercises, above with German translation and below with analyses of syntax and prosody.

Exercise-book of Aurél Stein from the Dresden Kreuzschule, 1876, detailMagnus Alexander totum devicerat orbem
unde sibi magni nomen adeptus erat.

Alexander the Great conquered the whole world
thus seizing a great name for himself.

He has before him yet the Indian and Iranian studies in Vienna, Leipzig and Tübingen, the post-doctoral years in London, Cambridge and Oxford, the discoveries in India, Turkestan and Persia. He does not know yet that he will seize a great name for himself by walking through the Silk Road from China to Syria and by reconstructing for the first time the world-conquering path of Alexander the Great.

Photo of Aurél Stein on the Silk Road: Pan Zhen with attendants
Photo of Aurél Stein on the Silk Road: Yazgulamis anthropometrically examined at Rokhar
In Studiolum we have just completed the four languages – English, Spanish, Chinese and Hungarian – web catalog of the Hong Kong exhibition. We have just uploaded it on the server of the Hungarian Academy: http://stein.mtak.hu/index-en.html. The day after tomorrow, on November 12, at 14 o’clock it will be solemnly presented to the Hungarian scholarly public at the Academy, together with the web edition of the medieval Hebrew Kaufmann Codices. The two collections will be introduced by professor and head of the department of Ancient history Gyula Wojtilla, and by chief rabbi Tamás Raj, respectively. After them, we will demonstrate the secrets of the web edition. Coffee and cakes will be provided by our host. All our readers are welcome.

The Khotan manuscript of Aurél Stein with flower

Armenian monasteries in Iran

The medieval Armenian monastery of Saint Stephen in Northern Iran, in the valley of the Araxes/Aras
More Armenian posts:
The Armenian cemetery of Julfa
Lake Van, the legend of Ara
“Russian first”
The excellent Días del futuro pasado blog gives news with images and drawings borrowed from the site of UNESCO about a group of monuments we especially love having recently been included on the list of World Heritage. Three monumental medieval Armenian fortified churches among the majestically barren northern Iranian mountains, the monastery of Saint Thaddeus, the monastery of Saint Stephen and the Dzordzor chapel. The map taken from armenica.org only indicates the two larger ones, the chapel was localized on it by ourselves.

Map: three medieval Armenian monasteries on the list of the UNESCO World Heritage
All three sanctuaries lay in unpopulated valleys and have been abandoned since times immemorial. A monastery used to stand along the chapel as well, but it perished long ago. The environs are inhabited by Kurd and Azeri herdsmen and peasants. No Armenians live around here. One could regard it surprising to find so far from Armenia and among a foreign and Muslim population three monasteries so large that they would be considered noteworthy even in Armenia. But only as long as he does not know that not the monasteries were built far from Armenia, but it was Armenia that moved far away from them.

Map: The changing borders of Armenia in the past two thousand yearsThe changing borders of Armenia from around the birth of Christ until our days, from the Armenian historical atlas. We have marked the place of the three monuments with a red Armenian cross.

The map clearly shows that the monasteries were built on the central part of historical Armenia, in the Vaspurakan region to the east of Lake Van, which in the Middle Ages was also an independent kingdom for some centuries. This was the cradle of the Armenian people, a rich region, crossed by several caravan routes. At its eastern border lays Tabriz, the gate of Eastern commerce in the times of Marco Polo, and above it, on the side of the mountain river Araxes/Aras the Armenian town of Julfa which played a key role in Persian silk commerce and in the age of the Renaissance it also had its own commercial representation and Armenian colony in Amsterdam.

The church of St. Stephen on the side of the Araxes/Aras riverJulfa, the old Armenian church at the Araxes river

The reason of the destruction of this region and of historical Armenia was that from the end of the Middle Ages it laid on the periphery of three great powers. None of the three was strong enough to occupy and also maintain the Armenian territories like ancient Persia and later Byzantium did, but all the three had fear that it could serve to the other two as an area of supply and as an eventual ally in case of an offensive. Therefore all the three kept systematically depopulating it for centuries. The Persian shah Great Abbas resettled in 1606 the almost complete Armenian population of the territory under his dominion, including that of the town of Julfa, to his new capital Esfahan where their descendants still live in the Armenian quarter New Julfa. Two centuries later the Russians conquering the Caucasus settled in the internal parts of their country the Armenian merchants from the occupied territories. And during the First World War it was the Turks who, having fear of an eventual expansion of the Armenian province under Russian rule, definitely extirpated the more than one million Armenian inhabitants of historical Armenia. Where Xenophon, during his withdrawal with the Spartan army, but even the Hungarian discoverer Ármin Vámbéry wandering from the Black Sea to Tabriz, passed along a series of Armenian villages, the modern traveler only sees sublime mountains and deserted platos, for after 1915 the Turkish state systematically obliterated even the depopulated Armenian settlements and medieval churches.

The medieval Armenian monastery of Saint Thaddeus in Northern Iran
The monastery of Saint Thaddeus was built according to the tradition by the Apostle Saint Judas Thaddeus, “the brother of the Lord” and the first missionary of the Armenians in 66 A.D. According to the fifth-century Armenian chronicler Movses Khorenatsi, he is also buried here. If this is really so, then this church is equal in rang with the Roman basilicas of Peter and Paul, the tomb in Compostela of the Apostle Jacob, and the Madras cathedral of the Apostle Thomas, only much less known. It was rebuilt in 1324 after an earthquake, and because of its black and white stones local people call it with a half Azeri, half Persian name Qara Kelisa, Black Church. You can find a detailed description, many good images and drawings of it at armenica.org.

The medieval Armenian monastery of Saint Stephen in Northern Iran, in the valley of the Araxes
The monastery of Saint Stephen was also mentioned in the 7th century, but it was founded much earlier, according to the tradition by the Apostle Bartholomeus, companion of Saint Thaddeus and co-protector, together with him, of the Armenian church. This one is locally called because of its light brown stones Qizil Kelisa, Golden Church. A detailed documentation of this one also can be found at armenica.org. Some kilometers from here you can still see the ruins of the last Armenian village Darashamb. This monastery used to be the cultural center of the region for centuries, with its library, with its monastic school of theology and philosophy, and with its scriptorium whose several manuscripts are still conserved from the Armenian monastery of Venice to the Armenian museum of Esfahan.

The medieval Armenian chapel of Dzordzor in Northern Iran
The Dzordzor chapel is the lest known monument of this region of monasteries, so much that this far it has not even figured in the guides. It was built around the 10th century, and then rebuilt after the great earthquake in 1324. Originally there was a fortified monastery around it too, but it gradually declined after the resettlement of the Armenian population in 1606. The chapel was also rather ruined when in 1986-87, because of a dam built on the nearby river, the Iranian state moved it to a point some half kilometer higher and in the same time also restored it.

The medieval Armenian monastery of Saint Stephen in Northern Iran, in the valley of the Araxes/Aras
The monasteries lay near to each other, so the simplest way to visit them is by taxi from Julfa or from Maku. It does not cost much, as a liter of gasoil costs only around 8 eurocents in Iran. When we were there, already for 200 thousand rials, that is for about 18 euros you could have a taxi for a whole day trip. The mountain roads are breathtakingly beautiful, and one stops the car again and again for taking a photo. As the road follows the border river for a long while, you should count for Iranian border guides appearing at some point and checking your papers.

The border river Araxes/Aras between Irán and Azerbaijan
The Dzordzor chapel is usually closed, but in the two monasteries there live an old Kurd and Azeri guardian, respectively, who willingly open the church and guide you around. And there is a day in the year when the monastery of Saint Thaddeus comes to life again. On this day, the day of its holy patron a multitude of Armenians come together here from all around the world to celebrate Mass and having a feast with music and dance. Fabien Dany in the last year and Duško M Du Swami in this year were there and published their photos. Perhaps in the next year I will also manage to do so.

The medieval Armenian monastery of Saint Thaddeus in Northern Iran, on the feast of Saint Thaddeus


Biblioburros: Luis Soriano, Alfa and Beto
No, no, they are not rhinoceroses, although after the previous posts we are able to see the rhinoceros in anything. This is the Biblioburros, that is Donkey Library. It is composed of two donkeys called very properly Alfa and Beto, of a librarian, Columbia, La Gloria, the center of Biblioburros, Aracataca and Valleduparthe elementary school teacher Luis Soriano, and of four thousand eight hundred books begged together from various sources. Obviously only a small part of them moves around at every weekend on the mountain paths around the Columbian village of La Gloria, about which the yesterday article of the Spanish edition of the New York Times presenting the library says to be even more abandoned than Aracataca, the Macondo of Gabriel García Márquez’s Hundred years of solitude.

Soriano not only procures, carries and stores the books – in high piles along the wall, a practice not without risk in a home with three children –, but he also reads them aloud to his public: fairy tales to the children and adult literature for the illiterate. He makes efforts to keep the standard high, and he asks in letters the contemporary authors to send him copies of their works. His readers are already waiting for them, and – sure what is sure – they often learn by heart the poems from the volumes of contemporary poetry lent for only a week.

This part of Columbia is inflicted by guerilla wars, “but they are already not as violent as they were in my childhood” says reassuringly Soriano who had been once captured by one of the gangs. They found no money on him, so they finally took away only a book, the Brida by Coelho, says Soriano with a resigned grimace.

In my childhood the mobile library, an Ikarus bus painted in yellow and having bookshelves on the place of its seats came once a week, on Tuesday afternoon from four to eight to the worker’s colony Sibrik in Kőbánya, on the outskirts of Budapest. It brought books from the library in the suburb center where none of my classmates have ever been. But all of them stood there in the queue, waiting for the bookmobile from as early as three and a half – they could choose from the most interesting books in the order of arrival –, discussing the books they had read in the previous week, changing bibliographies, offering critical evaluations, establishing canons, appreciating authors, like in ancient Athens. After 1989 the bookmobile stopped to come. I wonder what the children of my classmates might read nowadays in the worker’s colony Sibrik.

When searching for the Biblioburros, I also found a video where the bookmobile just arrives to a mountain ranch. The children are leafing the books, the master sets to read a fable. And lo, is that not a rhinoceros, at minute one, seconds twenty-seven?

Rhinocerology 3. The first litter

Nature imitates art.
Oscar Wilde: Portrait of Dorian Gray

The rhinoceros of Dürer in the Grotta degli Animali of the Villa di Castello of Florence by Giambologna, after 1537Giambologna: Grotta degli Animali, Firenze, Villa di Castello, after 1537

Pisa, Cathedral, detail of the bronze door with the rhinoceros of DürerPisa, Cathedral, detail of the bronze door made by the workshop of Giambologna, first half of the 16th century

The rhinoceros of Dürer on a Netherlandish gobelin in the Kronborg Castle, 1550Castle of Kronborg (Danemark), Netherlandish gobelin from 1550

As the above examples show, by the middle of the 16th century the rhinoceros spread all over Europe from the southernmost South to the northernmost North. These animals, however, were not the direct offsprings of the engraving by Dürer.

The rhinoceros of Dürer, 8th edition by Willem Janssen, Amsterdam, 17th centuryDürer’s rhinoceros, 8th edition by Willem Janssen, Amsterdam, 17th century

True, Dürer’s engraving was reprinted several times in the two centuries following its first publication. However, these stand-alone leaflets were usually conserved in the cabinets of curiosities of princely collectors like in private zoos. The “true image” of the rhinoceros established by Dürer was transmitted to the public principally through the engravings of the Renaissance handbooks and encyclopedias. This very exciting period of the birth of the modern encyclopedia has not been yet really discovered by modern research which focuses either on the medieval encyclopedies like the Etymologies by Isidor of Seville or the four Speculum’s by Vincent of Beauvais, or on the 18th-century French Encyclopedia by Diderot and Alembert and its immediate scientific predecessors (although the pendulum of Foucault as well as the lexicon of Lemprière and their epigons are already looting them with abundant profit). Nevertheless, these works were highly celebrated in their age, and even today they are very enjoyable readings, offering plenty of enchanting surprises. And besides they established all those standards that we consider as self-evident today, from alphabetic orden through thematic lexicons to the bibliography.

The rhinoceros of Dürer in the Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster, around 1550
One of the first and most influential encyclopedias was the Cosmographia compiled by the Basel geographer and Hebraist Sebastian Münster and published in five languages and thirty-three editions between 1544 and 1628. Its success was very much enhanced by its beautiful engravings composed by eminent artists like Hans Holbein the Younger, Urs Graf or David Kandel. This latter one, who also illustrated another early encyclopedia, the epoch-making Kreütter Buch or Herbal (1546) by Hieronymus Bock, made that copy of Dürer’s picture which thereafter spread the true image of the rhinoceros in several reprints and editions all over Europe.

The rhinoceros of Dürer in the 1580 French edition of the Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster
A characteristic feature of this engraving is that the printing block seems to have broken after an early edition, and since then a somewhat oblique thin horizontal line run through all the later prints like a watermark attesting its authenticity. In colored copies, like in the above 1580 French edition of the Cosmographia they tried to eliminate it through overpainting.

The rhinoceros of Dürer in the Cosmographia of Sebastian Münster, 1598
However, by later editions like this Basel 1598 one, the printing block became worn not only on its printing side but also on its joint surface, and the two halves were slightly shifted from each other.

The rhinoceros of Dürer in Conrad Lycosthenes’s Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon, 1557
This engraving was used in other handbooks as well, like here in the collection Prodigiorum ac ostentorum chronicon (Chronicle of the miracles and omens), Basel 1557 by the illustrious German humanist Conrad Lycosthenes, an illustrated register of all the wonderful events, signs and phenomena mentioned from the Antiquity to the Renaissance. The rhinoceros appears here among the other wondrous animals. But it also entered in Paolo Giovio’s Dialogo dell’imprese militari e amorose (Discourse about the military and amorous symbols), the father of all 16th-century symbol encyclopedias, to which we will return in a next post.

The rhinoceros of Dürer in the Thierbuch of Conrad Gessner, 1563
The image self-evidently received an eminent place in the monumental Historia animalium (1551-8) by the Swiss physician Conrad Gessner, also published in German from 1565 and in English in 1606. This four volumes first zoological encyclopedia not only published an excellent copy of Dürer’s engraving, but it also carefully collected all the known information about the animal in three folio pages printed with small letters. The translation of the complete text will be offered in a next post as a curiosity.

The rhinoceros of Dürer in the Thierbuch of Conrad Gessner, 1563
The rhinoceros of Dürer in the Historia animalium of Conrad Gessner, 1551
However, prints could convey only forms and no colors. The different coloring of two copies of the Historia animalium shows well, how different ideas the contemporaries had about the true colors of this animal.

The rhinoceros of Dürer in Ulisse Aldrovandi
And it shines in even more striking colors in the great zoological encyclopedia published in eleven folio volumes between 1599 and 1640 by Ulisse Aldrovandi, founder of one of the earliest botanical gardens (Bologna) and owner of one of the largest collection of curiosities of his age.

The rhinoceros of Dürer in Ambroise Paré
Ambroise Paré, the surgeon of four French kings, who won our sympathy by his personal motto which bears witness to a serious self-criticism and psychological sense – Guérir quelquefois, soulager souvent, consoler toujours, “Intervene rarely, relieve often, console always” – was one of the most original natural scientists of the 16th century. Within his far-reaching and painstaking oeuvre he also dedicated a chapter to the rhinoceros. In his Discours de la licorne (Treatise on the unicorn), translated and published in several editions he attempts to establish the origin of the “corn of unicorn” considered as an effective medicine against poisoning and epidemy, and he also proposes its identification with the rhinoceros. On this occasion he publishes not only the above picture of the latter animal, but also illustrates its combat with the elephant as described by Pliny and as we will present it in a later post.

Rhinocerology 2. Rhinoceros on the reverse

Rhinoceros on coins and banknotes
Pierio Valeriano of Bolzano was the first Renaissance humanist who recognized that the enormous amount of recently rediscovered Classical body of knowledge pervading the European civilization had radically changed the symbols of the educated culture, and that it would be a promising business enterprise to compose a dictionary of the new language of symbols Valeriano, Hieroglyphica, Egyptian obelisquebased on the Classical culture, for all those patrons, humanists, painters and writers who wish to appear well-versed in the new erudition. His dictionary of symbols published with the title Hieroglyphica on almost a thousand folio pages – whose first modern three languages edition is now being prepared by Studiolum – became a commercial and cultural bestseller. It was published eight times between 1556 and 1678, it was translated in Italian and French, and it was even quoted in the 19th century.

Valeriano collected his corpus from a large number of sources, from Ancient authors to Medieval theologians and from mythological representations to the reliefs of the triumphal columns, but ancient coins had an eminent place in it. These coins were regarded as authoritative historical sources, equal in rank with the written works. As the author of one of the earliest numismatical handbooks Sebastiano Erizzo argued:

Sì come di molte & varie cose, per le istorie habbiamo noi conoscimento, che ogni diletto di tutti gli altri spettacoli & discipline auanzano, così gl’istorici, che di quelle scriuono, spesse fiate con molti errori, opinioni diuerse, & fauole, la verace istoria ci tengono ascosa. A rimedio di ciò, per auiso mio prouidero gli antichi, lasciandoci tanta copia di marmi, di scritture & di bella istoria illustrati; le statue tante & sì varie de i loro Dei, & de gli huomini illustri; i superbi edificij, gli archi notabili, la tanta quantità di antiche medaglie in oro, in argento, & in varij metalli formate. Le quali cose della istoria, & della grandezza de gli antichi ci danno riscontro & testimonianza vera. … Di cotali antichità dilettatomi io sempre, fino dalla mia prima età, Roman coin, Aegypto capta& ricercando parimente tutte le istorie greche & latine, incominciai à voler intendere i riuersi lati delle medaglie antiche, per gli molti & varij libri delle istorie, in tal maniera drizzando il corso di tali studij, che esse medaglie mi seruissero in vece di imagini, & rappresentationi di tante cose belle, che nelle istorie sparse si leggono.

Although we are taught about many different things by the art of history which surpasses the delight of all other entertainments and sciences, nevertheless historians often hide from us the real path of history behind their errors, different opinions and false tales. In my opinion it was for the remedy of this fault that the ancients had left to us in such an abundant amount the marbles decorated with inscriptions and beautiful stories, the statues of their gods and illustrious men, their marvellous buildings, majestic triumphal arches and the great multitude of the ancient coins made out of gold, silver and other metals that give a faithful image and testimony on the history and greatness of the ancients … I myself have found my delight in these since my early age,
Roman coin, four elephants with triumphal carand while I was proceeding in the study of all the Greek and Latin historians, I also started to decypher with their help the reverses of the ancient coins, directing the way of my studies so that I could reveal on these coins the images and representations of all those illustrious things about which we cannot read in histories. (Discorso sopra le medaglie antiche, 1559)

It is just obvious therefore that Valeriano, when setting his hand to the entry “Rhinoceros,” started the interpretation of the symbolic images of this animal with a coin:

Qui Rhinoceronta in Domitiani numis inspexêre, quid id signum sibi velit, quaeritare solent. Ego factum id ad Principis adulationem dixerim, qui animalia huiusmodi spectaculis obtulerit.

Those who see the image of the rhinoceros on the coin of Domitianus often inquire about its meaning. I would say that it was made in honor of the emperor who had these animals provided for the spectacles in the circus.

Ancient coins gave origin to a flourishing numismatic literature, whose most important 16th-century representatives will be also published in the Renaissance series of Studiolum. These works usually grouped by emperors the descriptions and – if the generosity of the patron permitted it – the engraved images of the known coins. Strangely, however, we cannot find in them the coin of Domitian with the rhinoceros. It seems to have been a rare piece, just as its image was somewhat unusual in its own period. In fact, Roman coins which, by way of their similarity to amulets, were also considered a little bit as magic objects, mostly bore the images of protective gods and imperial allegories. Although this coin had been known at least since Valeriano, we have to wait until as late as 1683 for its occurrence in a printed collection. This collection was one of the most authoritative numismatic summaries of the age, the Thesaurus numismatum imperatorum, published in three folio volumes in Paris by the renowned Bern collectionist and engraver Andreas Morellius. The 1684 edition of the review of the London Royal Society Philosophical Transactions emphasizes its importance:

This ingenious and diligent Helvetian, as a fair instance what humane industry may effect, if fixt and resolv'd, hath already delineated above twenty thousand different and ancient Coynes, which is a very considerable part of the sorts reserved in the Cabinets of the Princes of Europe, and alsoe an admirable advantage to the Philologist.

In this catalog we find as much as three – or, let us say, two and a half – coins with the rhinoceros, whose pictures we publish here from the Wetstein edition of Morellius’s work (Amsterdam, 1752). On page 497 of the second volume we find this:

Andreas Morellius, Domitian’s bronze coin with the image of a rhinoceros, A.D. 88, RIC 249 (435) és RIC 250 (436)
and on page 494 this:

Andreas Morellius, golden coin of Domitian with the image of a rhinoceros, A.D. 88Both coins were issued by Domitian. The above one, made out of bronze, circulated with two different reverses: on one version the animal looked to the left, and on the other version to the right. The other coin was included by Morellius among the golden coins issued in Alexandria and Egypt, and he also translated its Greek inscription in Latin: “Tribunitia Potestate Consul XIIII.”, that is, “Consul for the 14th time by power of the people’s assembly”, which dates the coin to A.D. 88. On this basis, he gives the following explanation for the representation of the rhinoceros:

Domitiani Consulatus XIIII. incidit in annum V. C. 841. Chr. 88. quo Saeculares Ludos fecit, & Nasamones, & Dacos iterum vicit. Rhinoceros utrumque & ludos & bellum indicat; qui etiam munificentiae, & aeternitatis Imperii est insigne.

Domitianus started his 14th consulate in the 841th year of the foundation of the City, and in the 88th of Christ’s birth, when he organized jubilee spectacles and also defeated the Nasamons and Dacians. The rhinoceros refers both to the spectacles [as Valeriano says] and the war, and it symbolizes both the abundance and the eternity of the empire.

The jubilee spectacles were organized at the centenaries of the foundation of Rome, and the majority of the first emperors made every effort to invent some computation of the time which proved that the anniversary occurred exactly during their rule. This centenary of Rome was thus celebrated by a number of subsequent Caesars. The spectacles of A.D. 88, especially lavishly organized by Domitian, were even remembered by Suetonius and Martial.

Golden coin of Domitianus issued for his 14th consulate, A.D. 88, RIC 561Golden coin of Domitian issued for his 14th consulate, A.D. 88 (RIC 561)

The rhinoceroses on these coins remarkably resemble the drawing of Dürer. They have a conspicuous “second horn,” the “dragon-wing pattern” on the “side piece of their armor,” and, in general, the animal’s posture, legs and the structure of its “armor” are just like that of the papal rhinoceros. Is it possible that Dürer supplied from the coins of Domitian for the eventual faults of the sketch of Fernandes? His friend, the Augsburg humanist, antiquarian and imperial councillor Conrad Peutinger with whom they worked together on a number of imperial art commissions – Peutinger on the program and Dürer on the execution – was one of the most renowned collectors of coins of his age, composing in 1511 the first manuscript catalog of the images and titles of Roman emperors on ancient coins. It is highly possible that at least one of the above two coins – if I may have a preference, then the golden one with the dragon-wing pattern – was there in his collection, and that the drawing of Dürer was thus made on the model of a Roman rhinoceros indeed: however, this rhinoceros arrived to Rome one and a half thousand years before the other one left Lisbon.

How good it would be to finish this post here and, sitting back with a laurel placed on our own head, have a good sip of the well deserved Falernum wine! However, there is a small matter left yet.

In the second volume of the standard modern catalog Roman Imperial Coinage, in chapter “Domitian” we find the following coins with catalog numbers RIC 249 (434) and 250 (435):

Bronze coin of Domitian with the image of a rhinoceros, A.D. 88, RIC 249-250 (424-435)
Bronze coin of Domitian with the image of a rhinoceros, A.D. 88, RIC 249-250 (424-435)
Bronze coin of Domitian with the image of a rhinoceros, A.D. 88, RIC 249-250 (424-435)
Bronze coin of Domitian with the image of a rhinoceros, A.D. 88, RIC 249-250 (424-435)
Bronze coin of Domitian with the image of a rhinoceros, A.D. 88, RIC 249-250 (424-435)
These ones are certainly identical with the bronze coins presented by Morellius, also because there are no more bronze coins with the image of rhinoceros in the whole RIC.

However, these are very different both from Dürer’s drawing and from their own representation in Morellius. They do not have the “second horn” protruding from between their shoulder-blades, they have no “armor” like them, and even their legs are thin like those of cattles and horses on contemporary coins, thus attesting that the artists already at that time adjusted to their accepted visual schemes what they saw.

And the other coin, the golden one with the dragon-wing pattern does not even figure in the RIC.

This fact in itself does not mean that it has never existed. At least Morellius must have seen a copy of it. The RIC is continuously being enlarged, but it is still far from complete. The Imperatorum Romanorum numismata (1730) of Franciscus Mediobarbus Biragus, for example, also remembers a coin issued in the same year of A.D. 88 with the representation of a rhinoceros and an elephant together. The RIC does not know about anything like this either. A large Roman golden coin issued in Egypt with a Greek inscription was certainly a rare item. The one copied by Morellius could have been also lost or it may be hidden somewhere.

However, at the sight of the bronze coins a suspicion arises: did he copy the golden one correctly? Was it not the case which seems to have happened to the bronze ones: that he adjusted the drawing of the Roman coin to the engraving of Dürer as an “authentic representation”?

As the purpose of our present series “Rhinocerology or the power of images” is not to define the exact models of Dürer’s image, but to offer an inside view into the “hidden life,” the mutual attractions and assimilations of Renaissance images, therefore we will be just as satisfied if it will turn out that it was not Dürer who used Domitian’s coins as his models, but Morellius adjusted his representations of the coins to the engraving of Dürer which was, in its turn, made after another indirect model. In this case it will be not Dürer’s image to display a Roman rhinoceros that lived a thousand and five hundred years earlier, but the drawing of Domitian’s coin will represent the animal of Lisbon which was born a thousand and five hundred years after the issue of the coin itself.

and now I don’t know whether
Zhuangzi dreamed of being
a butterfly or the butterfly
dreamed of being Zhuangzi, albeit
a difference between Zhuangzi and the butterfly
certainly there is