things magazine

The idea of a rhinoceros

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Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros is one of the most celebrated drawings ever made (the BM link is to the woodcut). According to the British Museum, the animal depicted was originally a gift from Sultan Muzafar II of Gujurat, who presented it to ‘Alfonso d’Albuquerque, the governor of Portuguese India’ in May 1515. The hapless beast subsequently drowned in a shipwreck on its way to visit Pope Leo X in Rome. In The Rhinoceros (pdf), an essay by Eliot Weinberger published in Almost Island, the animal ‘was a sensation. Within two months, a doctor in Florence published a paean to it, in twenty-one stanzas of ottava rima. The Emperor Maximilian had a rhinoceros drawn in the margin of his prayer book; Raphael placed one in a fresco of the Creation of the Animals in the Vatican. Someone, it is not known who, sent a sketch of the animal to Albrecht Dürer in Nuremberg, whose heavily armored version– Dürer was a designer of armor– remained the standard image of the rhinoceros for centuries, though Dürer never saw one.’


(Weinberger goes on to chronicle the stories and fates of the next seven adventurous rhinoceroses, culminating in the ‘eighth rhinoceros in Europe, acquired by Pidcock in 1799, was soon sold to the Emperor of Germany, Francis II. Awaiting shipment across a war-torn Europe, rarely seen, it died a few months later, in a stable on Drury Lane.’ Pidcock’s Exhibition of Wild Beasts, or Menagerie, was described as ‘a capital collection of wild beasts, so well secured, that the most timorous may approach them in safety.’ Specimens included ‘a majestic lion… tapir, or hippopotamus… Bengal royal tigers… a noble male panther… fine leopards… the cerval, or tyger cat… the jackall… the most scientific male elephant… Egyptian camels… a beautiful male nilghau… the stupendous African ostrich… two pairs of kangaroos… pelican of the wilderness.’


The menagerie was located in the Exeter ‘Change building on the Strand (now the site of the Strand Palace Hotel). The male elephant, Chunee, also came to an unfortunate end: ‘Chunee also performed at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane and at Covent Garden, and Lord Byron, visiting him in 1813, recorded that he ‘took off my hat – opened a door – trunked a whip – and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler’. Unfortunately, while on a walk along the Strand in 1826, Chunee ran amok, killed one of his keepers, and had to be shot dead by soldiers from Somerset House.’ A more thorough account is found here, ‘it was deemed advisable to put the animal to death. For this purpose a file of soldiers was engaged, and 152 bullets were fired before it fell. The elephant weighed nearly five tons, stood eleven feet in height, and was valued at £1,000. The skin, which weighed 17 cwt., was sold to a tanner for £50; the bones weighed 876 Ibs.; and the entire skeleton, sold for £100, is now in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields’. Images linked directly from this page. A few years after Pidcock’s death in 1810 the surviving animals were moved to the Surrey Zoological Gardens, another slice of long lost London. But we digress).


Modern life is full of such rhinoceroses, lavishly drawn and pre-imagined but ultimately not quite like the real thing. Reading the Failed Modern Dwelling yesterday and digging out these celebratory imaginings of the future Elephant and Castle suggested that rendered architecture is the contemporary equivalent of Dürer’s armoured beast; elaborated and expanded, a vision that is hoped for but is also by its very nature a naked, bare-faced lie. But just as the 1515 image provided a filter through which people subsequently saw these beasts, the contemporary render acts as a lens of perception, a means of charging expectations with meaning, ultimately helping to fulfil the ambitions of architects, planners and developers. Gone are the days of abstract representations with gaps to fill in in your mind. The rhinoceros woodcut was the most concrete manifestation of an imaginary thing that the sixteenth century mind could contend with; it was reality. There were no voids to fill. Modern architectural representation is fast heading in the same direction, using artifice to re-shape reality.


The Foster drawings are an exception, of course. But ultimately, architectural representation is at the forefront of cultural intervention, increasingly less concerned with idealism or utopianism, but with shaping a pre-determined, pre-let consumer landscape, where architecture melts into air and all that’s missing is the clink of the cappucino cup and the ringing of tills. That’s why the genre is so open to subversion. We’ve linked to renders of ruined cityscapes many times before, and the aesthetic language of the disaster movie is now closely linked to the presentation style of international architecture.


In this post, The Terror and Romance of Sketchup at Strange Harvest, it’s suggested that the off-the-shelf, free-for-all 3D design package is a gateway to a new form of unmediated banality. ‘And when we start to look closely, isn’t there some kind of strange sublime operating in the SketchUp landscape?… Maybe this is something we could call SketchUp sublime: A landscape of horror and beauty that might take the place of the now-commercialised wildernesses where sensations of the sublime originated.’ It’s a long way from a lonely rhinoceros.


Other things. A far more satisfactory post on the Millennium Falcon Model at / Pal Robotics ‘wants to become a specialist leader in the development and commercialization of humanoid and service robots’ / Tetradia, a tumblr / Qué caso tiene, scans of a 1982 book by Rogelio Naranjo at ephemera assemblyman / a blog by illustrator Kelli Anderson / What am I doing here?, scans from a 1947 book by Abner Dean at Container List.


The curse of T-Rex, a transcript of a 1997 programme about the collision between commercial and scientific fossil hunters and the story of Sue, ‘the largest, most extensive and best preserved Tyrannosaurus rex specimen ever found’. And also, controversially, the most expensive. David Weishampel: ‘I don’t think that everything, every physical object, really demands that it have a price tag put on it. Why can’t we respect fossils for what they are? They’re parcels of the history of life. Why should that be treated as something that can be bought and sold?’


A Tale of Two Trains: High-speed transportation systems: Which country has the most advanced and resilient infrastructure?’ Or how Norway’s forthcoming investment in high speed rail might not be the smartest investment. Controversial: ‘… high-speed, high-entropy transportation systems take a country back to the past. They are not the way of the future.’


Just Adventure, a site devoted to computer based adventure games / cut_out paper house / another link to Dodeckahedron, because we like it / Graphic Presentation, a selection of pages from the book by Willard Cope Brinton (1939) / beautiful animal cities, an ad campaign for the WWF: rhinoceros (after Dürer), turtle and elephant (via The Daily Anchor).

Written by things

November 16, 2010 at 13:01

2 Responses

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  1. ‘Modern life is full of such rhinoceroses, lavishly drawn and pre-imagined but ultimately not quite like the real thing.’

    Just a passing point. Dürer’s rhinoceros isn’t actually quite inaccurate as people something think; the rhinos we see most often are the two African species, but if you look at a picture of an Indian Rhino or a Javan Rhino, Dürer’s version starts looking pretty good.


    November 19, 2010 at 16:26

  2. […] for more on the rhinoceros and all things related to its representation consult the always wonderful things magazine. […]

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