The Renaissance Rhinoceros

Albrecht Durer’s supposedly-realistic rhinoceros is featured prominently in the new exhibition at Harvard University’s Sackler Museum, “Prints and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe”, as well as in its companion catalog (in fact it’s on the cover), and with good reason:  horned beasts were the most fantastic of all creatures  in medieval bestiaries, and with the coming of the Renaissance their existence was either verified or disproved.  The appearance of Durer’s rhinoceros in print was part of this process, and also a great example of the Renaissance merger of art and science, two pursuits that seem incompatible today.

The exhibition also features an amazing print showing several men measuring a beached whale on a Dutch beach, another illustration of a great beast that was now the object of scientific scrutiny rather than passive wonder.  Contrast this whale with illustrations from two thirteenth-century bestiaries in the collection of the British Library and you can easily see the difference of attitude.  The two medieval whales are depicted in standard fashion as ” islands”, based on the legend of Saint Brendan the Navigator who awoke one morning during his long sea voyage on what he thought was an island but was really a whale.

Whales:  Anonymous after Hendrick Goltzius, Stranded Whale at Zandvoort, 1594.  Harvard Art Museum, Light Outerbridge Collection, Richard Norton Memorial Fund; British Library Manuscripts Harley 3244 & 4751.

In addition to prints of animals, the exhibition features maps and charts and illustrations of all the new scientific instruments of the age.  Of course, portraiture is a distinctly Renaissance genre, and rather than the usual royals and nobles we see a portrait print of mathematician and astronomer Nicolaus Petri van Deventer with all the tools of his profession.

Nicolaus Petri van Deventer by Hendrik Goltzius, 1595.

Medicine was another fledgling science of the sixteenth century, an age of “new” threats like syphilis (“the French pox”) and gunpowder and old ailments like the plague and smallpox.  It was also an age of intense anatomical analysis and speculation, represented in the exhibition’s “skeleton portrait” by Philip Galle and close-up of cranial surgery from a contemporary “field manual for the treatment of wounds”.

Skeleton from Philip Galle’s “Instruction and Fundamentals of Good Portraiture”, Antwerp, 1598.  Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam;  “Instruments for Use in Cranial Surgery” from Hans von Gersdorff and Hans Wechtlin the Elder, Feldtbuch der Wundartzney, Strasbourg, Hans Schott, 1540.  Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Print and the Pursuit of Knowledge in Early Modern Europe runs through December 10, 2011 at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  It was curated by Susan Dackerman, the Carl A. Weyerhauser Curator of Prints at the Harvard Art Museums.  A closing symposium will be held on December 2-3, 2011.

3 responses to “The Renaissance Rhinoceros

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: