Rhinocerology 4. The truth suppressed

The rhinoceros of Nicko Rubinstein
Evolutionary dead-end. This is how biological taxonomy calls those genotypes which branch off the tree of evolution, get stuck and then fall off (can you follow the metaphor?), or else they salvage their gene stock in ecosystems protected from evolutionary competitors and they continue far from the main stream of phylogeny their no longer purposeful race-preserving activity.

The rhinoceros of Nicko Rubinstein
Of course one can establish only retrospectively which of the two branches became the main stream. In a given moment the other one may even have everything in its favor, it can be stronger, more intelligent or beautiful than the main stream. Like, for example, dinosaurs were in contrast to primitive shrew, the first mammal. The main stream, however, has one incomparably great advantage in contrast to the dead end. Namely the fact that retrospectively it was the other that proved to be the dead end.

Examination of a 200 million years old fossil in the Victoria Museum, Australia
Similar branching off happened in the first decades of the 16th century, during the naturalization of the rhinoceros in Europe.

The rhinoceros of Dürer, drawing, 1515
We have seen that Renaissance representations of rhinoceros all derive, either directly or indirectly, from the 1515 engraving of Dürer. And through it from the above preparatory drawing preserved in the British Museum, made by Dürer on the basis of a drawing made from nature of the Lisbon beast.

No wonder that Dürer’s engraving had such success. Its convincing anatomy and statics give the impression of an authentic representation, while its compact modelling and stylized elaboration makes it a captivating picture and a marketable illustration. So much that – as we have already seen and will also see in other examples – even its inaccuracies, the „horn on withers,” the „armory” or the „dragon pattern” were transposed on the copies of other representations of the animal (ancient coins, pictures of different animals). The latest offspring of this engraving was born in December 2008 (!), less than a month ago, but this will be presented in the next post.

However, palaeontologists have recently unearthed also some fossil rhino specimens, which were all born in the same time as that of Dürer and apparently from the same parent, but they differ in some decisive details from the var. Düreris.

The rhinoceros by Hans Burgkmair, 1515
This woodcut has survived in one single copy in the Albertina of Vienna. Its maker Hans Burgkmair from Augsburg was a student of Martin Schongauer, the most important woodcutter before Dürer. Beginning with 1508 he made several hundreds of woodcuts for Emperor Maximilian I, similarly to Dürer, or often together with him.

Rhinoceros, engraving by Giovanni Giacomo Penni, 1515The source of Burgkmair’s woodcut was apparently the same sketch as to Dürer’s (and probably also to that of Giovanni Giacomo Penni, here to the left). No wonder, for the imperial commissions were procured for both of them by Dürer’s friend, the court humanist Konrad Peutinger of Augsburg. It was probably him who handed over to both of them the original sketch and description sent from Lisbon to “the merchants of Nuremberg.”

It seems that the woodcut of Burgkmair stood closer to the original drawing. It maintained the leg-straps, also visible on Penni’s woodcut, on the forelegs (which contributed to the death of the animal during the naufrage), its skin is more similar to the hard wrinkles of the Indian rhinoceros than the armory drawn by Dürer, and even its pattern is more realistic. According to modern experts, the round spots might be the symptom of the inflammation of skin which can in fact occur among rhinoceroses.

The two woodcuts were made in the same time, by two comparably outstanding masters, for the same public. This public, however, accepted only Dürer’s stylized representation, even making an icon out of it, while rejecting that of Burgkmair, even though this stood much closer to the reality. This rejection was so definitive that had this single copy of the image not survived we would not even known it had ever existed.

The differences between their respective style are well displayed by the images of the monumental composition The Triumphal Procession of Maximilian I assembled of 135 woodcuts (1518-1522), which were made principally by the two masters. Well, if we are allowed culicem elefanti conferre, to compare a mosquito to the elephant, as their friend Erasmus wrote in the same time in proverb 3.1.27 of his Adages. For Burgkmair’s picture represents the charriot of the jesters, while Dürer’s that of Maximilian himself encircled by his virtues. However, this division of labor is not accidental, but it shows how much more the stylized woodcuts of Dürer alloying Gothic with Quattrocento were appreciated by the period than the more naturalistic, loose-limbed, Brueghelian figures of Burgkmair. (You are recommended to see the pictures also enlarged.)

Hans Burgkmair: Triumphal procession of Maximilian I
Dürer: Triumphal procession of Maximilian I
As it often cannot be determined whether two fossils belonged to the same subspecies, so we cannot tell about another individual rhinoceros finding from this period whether it was made after Burgkmair’s woodcut and complemented with some elements of Dürer’s one, or it is rather a direct copy of the lost first sketch. But we think it must be rather this latter. This hypothesis is also supported by the fact that this drawing was made on the commission of Maximilian I, and its master was that most probably the same Albrecht Altdorfer who also prepared some of the woodcuts of the Triumphal procession. This animal survived in a marginal drawing of the prayer book of Maximilian I, made in 1515 and conserved in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Besançon. However, in spite of the distinguished niche and the greater closeness to reality, this representation also succumbed in the struggle for existence to its Dürerian evolutionary rival.

Prayer book of Emperor Maximilian I, 1515
A rudimentary “horn on the withers” occurs in this picture, too. Thus there had to be something already on the first drawing which led to the stylized “second horn” of Dürer’s rhinoceros. I wonder so much what it could have been.

Finally also a third, isolated rhinoceros survived from these years, and in a sculptural form to that, in Westphalia, on the stall erected in 1520 in the choir of the Saint Martin church in Minden. This one was certainly not made on the basis of the original sketch, but of a woodcut, as it was customary in the period. Perhaps right after the woodcut of Burgkmair which thus did not remain without an offspring. This little figure is so plastic, so vivid, that I would gladly continue the phylogenic metaphor by saying that, similarly to the Jurassic fauna surviving on the island of the Pacific, it has also withdrawn to this silent island, rendering its phenotype somewhat piglet-like, and since then it has been living its calm life between two ever-yielding vine trees.

Rhinoceros statuette on the stalls in the choir of Minden’s Saint Martin church, 1520

A: But why was it exactly the woodcut of Dürer to become so successful, and why were the others neglected?
B: I write under the drawing of Dürer that on the one hand it gave a very authentic anatomical and statical impression, and on the other hand it was both compact and stylized in a way very much appreciated by the period.
A: I think this is not enough. It also must have contributed to its success that this woodcut is like a jewel, so emblematic and subtly elaborated. The other drawings are so much “animal-like,” you can almost feel their smell.
B: I think this did not disturb the Renaissance at all, they were accustomed to this level of corporeality, and what is more they even required it. Even on the pictures. The great zoology of Gesner from 1551 is full of such pictures. There the illustrations of the ungulates are so similar to the image of Burgkmair that it would have been certainly included if the drawing of Dürer had not existed.
A: Well, that’s right. But even then, it is this stylized and jewel-like appearance that capturates you the most in it.
B: Perhaps we only feel so after the Art Nouveau. It is no chance that Dürer was rediscovered in the 19th century. True, also the Renaissance required a certain degree of stylizedness, especially then, in early sixteenth-century German court art, but this was only one of the ingredients of Dürer’s success, and perhaps not even the more important one. I rather think that his period loved those compact, statue-like figures constituting a space around themselves which were learned by Dürer from the “pathos figures” of the Italian Quattrocento. Such figures are used also in the Triumphal procession, and such is the rhinoceros as well.