The image on our letterhead and print publications is
based on a 1518 woodcut in the collection of one of our
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").
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
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
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
elephant image is drawn from a woodcut in our collection.
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
It is also found in Konrad Gesner's
1551 Historiae Animalium, arguably the first modern
Gesner noted Pliny's comment that
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 ...
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,
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.
were supposedly cold-blooded and thus pursued by dragons
in search of a cooling drink, Nosferatu-style, to slake
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
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
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.
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
is for example identified by Jane Hutchison as a model
for Durer's gloomy masterpiece The Knight, Death &
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
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,
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
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.