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The image on our letterhead and print publications is based on a 1518 woodcut in the collection of one of our principals. 

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The cut was taken from a drawing by German old master Hans Burgkmair the Elder (1473-1531) recycled in The Triumph of Maximilian (1526), a series of large-format prints by Burgkmair and others illustrating the triumphal procession of the Emperor Maximilian I and his retinue.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance beasts such as the elephant, giraffe and the rhinoceros were high-end status symbols, akin to the ostentatiously large and temperamental yachts owned by Rupert Murdoch, Larry Ellison and other digital moguls ("if you need to know how much it costs to run, you can't afford it").

To really impress the Pope - or another of the superpowers - you gave one of the designer animals. And instead of gift wrapping you included a retinue, ideally imported along with the beast from Africa or Asia. Some bolder monarchs tried to exchange whales but, like Albrecht Durer, discovered that leviathans don't travel well once out of the water. Lorenzo de Medici demonstrated his superiority by keeping a live giraffe, famous for approaching the first-floor windows of noble houses to nibble on tasty treats provided by the Florentine elite.

Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid sent Charlemagne an elephant named Abu l'-Abbas in 802. The first African elephant given to an English king, depicted here, supposedly died in 1257 after drinking too much red wine. (A successor, the consolation prize to Charles I in 1623, cost £275 a year to feed and a gallon of wine a day to warm its blood in winter.)

In 1514 the King of Portugal received an elephant and a rhinoceros from India. His gift of Hanno the Elephant to Pope Leo X is described in Sylvio Bedini's The Pope's Elephant (Nashville: Sanders 1998). Leo was an art patron, party animal and not a mate of Martin Luther, who famously denounced him as catching flies while his elephant cavorted. Depending on whose story you believe, poor Hanno died after being coated in gold leaf, over-indulging in red wine or falling into the Tiber. The rhino - depicted by both Albrecht Durer and Burgkmair - alas drowned enroute to Rome.

A few years later Suleyman, an African elephant complete with turbaned Indian mahout and a support staff of thirty, was sent to future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian II (1527-1576).

Suleyman - a fine specimen of Loxodonta Africana - walked across the Pyrenees, through France and onwards to Vienna, amazing the populace and exciting interest as far away as Moscow. Poets wrote jingles in his honour. Folklore developed about his courtesy and wisdom: like Hanno he rescued fallen babes, he genuflected to ecclesiastical worthies.

The historical Suleyman died in 1553. His remains were preserved until a 1943 bombing raid on Munich that also destroyed the blocks used to illustrate Andreas Vesalius' landmark anatomical treatise De Humani Corporis Fabrica Libri Septem.


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The elephant image is drawn from a woodcut in our collection.

a 1582 image of Suleyman from Ptolemy's Historia Mundi Naturalis

Burgkmair's drawing was recycled or appropriated by his son, by other artists and by Burgkmair himself. The likeness, variously adapted, appeared in a wide range of publications over the following century, including Sebastian Munster's 1580 map Sumatra Ein Grosse Insel.

We have recognised the beast's friendly face in early childrens' books, natural histories, late-Renaissance political studies and accounts of warfare among the ancient Romans. The image functioned as an early form of clip-art, with publishers and artists doing a copy and paste of the pachyderm whenever the need arose for an illustration of a scary, exotic creature.

The woodcut in our collection comes, appropriately, from the chapter in a 1582 edition of Pliny the Elder's encyclopaedic Historia Mundi Naturalis describing how Alexander the Great travelled into hitherto unexplored realms, braving dangers and returning with treasures. 

It is also found in Konrad Gesner's 1551 Historiae Animalium, arguably the first modern zoology text.

Gesner noted Pliny's comment that

The elephant is the largest land animal, and also the nearest to man in intelligence. It understands the language of its country, obeys orders, remembers duties it has learned, likes affection and honours - more, it has virtues rare in man - honesty, wisdom, justice, and respect for the stars and reverence for the sun and the moon ...

and the tale of an elephant who prefigured Descartes by writing in the sand "I, the elephant, wrote this".

Albrecht Durer, in sending a print of a rhinoceros (a 'rhinocerate') - featured on the next page - to a friend, wrote that

because it is such a marvel I considered that I must send this representation. It has the colour of a toad and is covered all over with thick scales, but lower, and is the deadly enemy of the elephant. It has on the front of its nose a strong sharp horn; and when this animal comes near the animal to fight it always first whets its horn on the stones and runs at the elephant with its head between its forelegs. Then it rips the elephant where its skin is thinnest and then gores it. The elephant is greatly afraid of the Rhinocerate; for he always gores it whenever he meets an elephant. For he is well armed, very lively and alert. The animal is called rhinocero in Greek and Latin but in Indian, gomda.

Elephants were supposedly cold-blooded and thus pursued by dragons in search of a cooling drink, Nosferatu-style, to slake their thirst.

subsection heading icon     Burgkmair

Born in Augsburg in 1473, Hans Burgkmair studied under Martin Schongauer in Kolmar. He became a member of the painters' guild in Strasbourg in 1490 and in Augsburg in 1498.

He is believed to have studied in Italy (1507?) - where he may have sighted elephants and rhinos given to the Pope - before returning home to one of the technological and financial centres of Europe. 

Augsburg was momentarily the centre of the printing revolution: Johannes Gutenberg, in nearby Mainz, had earlier gone bust through bad management and competition. It housed contemporary 'high tech' metal industries (including first mass production of the screw) and handled finances for an empire that stretched across much of Europe and South America.

It also had a reputation for advanced thinking and wild living: Dr Faustus was supposedly another local and alchemist Paracelsus visited Maximilian's court. 

All in all, an interesting place to work: analogous to a mix of New York and Silicon Valley in the 1990s.

Like contemporaries such as Durer and Altdorfer, Burgkmair sought commissions from the noble, the church and the merely well-to-do. He decorated residences in Munich and other parts of southern Germany. 

One notable project was his frescoes for the palatial townhouse of imperial moneyman Jakob Fugger - a proto venture capitalist of the 1500s. It was the first italianate renaissance palace in Germany. He painted a number of oils on religious subjects.

His portraiture is considered by some to have influenced Hans Holbein the Younger, Albrecht Durer and Albrecht Altdorfer. His chiaroscuro woodcut portrait of Maximilian I (here) is for example identified by Jane Hutchison as a model for Durer's gloomy masterpiece The Knight, Death & The Devil.

    woodcuts for the rich & infamous

Burgkmair's career - then and now - was overshadowed by Durer. He is chiefly famous for his woodcuts, at that time a fairly new form that had become prominent through increased availability of paper - the bandwidth of the period - and through the inclusion of prints in the new books. 

He is known to have produced around 700 woodcuts, including works that are considered of significance because they're in colour or because they demonstrate mastery of light and shade. Examples are available on the web (1, 2, 3, 4 here), along with a 1517 selfportrait.

Burgkmair contributed to a large-scale series of woodcuts - The Triumph of Maximilian (1512-26) - intended to glorify Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I, one of the more forgettable emperors despite his eagerness to claim Charlemagne, Julius Caesar, Alexander the Great and Hercules among his ancestors. 

To celebrate his wedding - which alas did not last long - and otherwise establish his legitimacy as the 'new Caesar' - the emperor commissioned a celebration built around a vast procession modelled on the triumphal parades of classical Rome. The event made a serious dint in the imperial budget; unsurprisingly the Fugger family went bust some years later - a precursor of the Y2K dotcom crash - when the emperor's successors did not repay major borrowings. 

Burgkmair was a leading participant in production of 137 woodcuts - 57 metres in length - depicting Emperor Max's triumphal procession. Albrecht Durer's studio produced a monster print, measuring 3.5 metres by 3 metres, of the Emperor's triumphal arch. Investment in golden trumpets, silken banners, ponies and poodles apparently meant that imperial finances didn't stretch to a stone arch; they made do with a temporary plaster & timber structure that was immortalised by Durer. 

Energetic spin-doctoring was apparently unsuccessful, as the Emperor was nearly deposed in 1500. Many of the artists and the printers were still waiting for payment twenty years later.

Burgkmair also illustrated Maximilian's writings such as the allegorical novel The White King and Theuerdank

His oil paintings and frescos are found in collections in Europe and North America. Although there are apparently no Burgkmair paintings in Australia, institutions such as the National Gallery of Victoria hold his prints.



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version of February 2005
© Bruce Arnold
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