by Eleanor Russell
This famous sketch of a rhinoceros was created in 1515 by the influential German artist, Albrecht Dürer, reflecting the growing interest in foreign curiosities that had emerged in tangent with the overseas voyages of exploration, commerce and conquest by the Spanish and Portuguese. The rhinoceros had been given as a gift by the ruler of Cambaia to Afonso de Albuquerque, the Portuguese viceroy in India, who in turn gifted it to king Manuel I of Portugal.
While the drawing itself provides a great deal of information about art and Orientalism in the Renaissance, among other things, the backstory of the painting is equally as fascinating. How did Dürer, then living in Nuremberg, ever come to make such a sketch?
In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, European humanists exchanged information in the so-called Republic of Letters, forming an international network that allowed German humanists to obtain information about the overseas voyages from Spain and Portugal. Closely connected to this, and equally important, were the diasporas of German merchants and entrepreneurs, including in the field of printing, in which Germans were particularly prominent.
Dürer obtained his information about the rhinoceros from the German printer Valentim Fernandes, who, along with other German printers had moved to Portugal in the 1490s at the request of Queen Leonor. She wished to replace the Jewish printers who had, until their expulsion, dominated the industry, giving them a platform to spread heretical messages through the medium of print.
Fernandes became the most important printer in Portugal, and was also an editor, translator, author and commercial broker, with a keen interest in the Portuguese overseas voyages. He also formed close ties to the Portuguese king Manuel I, who commissioned him to print works of propaganda. He thus became a crucial transmitter of information from overseas to Germany. When the rhinoceros arrived at Lisbon, Fernandes, with his links to the court, was able to provide a description and drawing that he sent to a friend in Nuremberg, who in turn showed it to Dürer, who produced his famous print.
As well as helping humanists and artists, this diaspora of German scholars and entrepreneurs gave their commercial compatriots the opportunity to benefit from the Portuguese and Spanish overseas expansion.
Following the success of the Portuguese and Spanish voyages to India and the Americas, German merchants and humanists, who were frequently connected by familial as well as social ties, worked together to gain entry into the Cape Route trade. When a consortia of German merchants campaigned in 1503 to gain entry into the Portuguese Cape Route trade – a monopoly of the Portuguese crown and technically closed to non-Portuguese merchants – Valentim Fernandes served as their mediator and translator due to his important status at the Portuguese court.
Valentim Fernandes’ letters to the humanists Conrad Peutinger, Hieronymus Münzer, and Stefan Gabler, who had close ties to the merchant companies, were essential for the merchants to obtain up-to-date information on commercial developments. Fernandes’ supply of information also suited Manuel I, who needed the copper and silver – over which the Germans had a near-monopoly – to export to India.
As such, after the contract of 1503, Fernandes was made the official broker for the German merchants in Lisbon, in which he was responsible for their transactions and was charged with making contact with the Portuguese authorities. Such was his importance at court that he received the reports of pilots returning from India immediately after they were given to the king.
The efforts of the German humanists and their merchant counterparts culminated in their participation in a 1505 voyage to India, in which they sent several of their factors to the East. Four years later, the factor of the powerful Welser company, Balthasar Springer, published his first-hand account of this voyage to India, entitled Die Merfart, and decorated with a woodblock frieze by Hans Burgkmair, one of the outstanding woodblock printers of the day. Burgkmair had been commissioned for the project by the humanist and jurist Conrad Peutinger at the request of the Welser, to whom he was related by marriage. Peutinger, in return, received geographical and ethnological data with which he could update the body of knowledge possessed by his humanist circle.
Therefore, the Europe-wide network of German artists, humanists, printers and merchants enabled German participation, artistically and commercially, in the European penetration into Asia and the Americas.
Albrecht Dürer, The Rhinoceros, pen drawing brown ink (1515), [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.