The Pope’s Elephant by Silvio A. Bedini

The Pope’s Elephant – Part 1

This story is about the Indian elephant which was sent as a gift by the king of Portugal to the Pope in Rome. Hanno was one of four elephants sent by the Governor of Portuguese India between 1510 and 1513 as gifts for his royal employer. Each of these four elephants made the perilous sea journey from the west coast of India to the royal court in Lisbon, passing the Cape of Good Hope. We do not know how long they were at sea, but the return to Lisbon often took over six months. It is nothing short of astonishing that these huge beasts survived such long voyages.

These elephants were the first Asian elephants to arrive in Portugal. Governor Afonso de Albuquerque specified that the one considered to be the most valuable had to be fed on 20 litres of rice per day, 20 litres of butter, and he directed that the hide of the elephant should be treated with oil. Four-year-old Hanno was the one that would be sent to the Pope.

Pope Leo X was making Rome a centre of European culture, pressing forward the building of St Peter’s Basilica and other churches, and sponsoring the written arts. A notorious spendthrift, he sustained his expenditure by the sale of indulgences, and it was during this papacy that Martin Luther produced his Ninety-five Theses in 1517, explicitly criticising the sale of indulgences.

When Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici was elected as Leo X on March 9, 1513, he said to his brother Giuliano: “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.” He was the last pope to be elected before he was ordained as a priest, and it was well known that the new Pope was a scholar and aesthete, as well as a lover of nature and hedonist.

Amongst the first to seek an audience with the new Pope was the Portuguese ambassador to Rome, João de Faria. He was graciously received, and Leo expressed his pleasure at Portuguese achievements overseas, hoping that the people of the lands conquered by Portugal would convert to Catholicism.

D Manuel I planned to increase the number of ships and war machines in readiness for taking on the Muslims in both Morocco and Egypt with a view to conquering Jerusalem. He also wanted to open possibilities of trade with India.

It was customary for monarchs to send a mission of obedience to a new Pope. The King of Portugal was determined that his mission would be such as had never been seen before. His aim was fourfold: to present his obedience to the Pope in accordance with tradition; to display a selection of the great riches of those regions that Portugal had commanded; and thirdly to request financial backing for Portugal’s voyages.

The last reason for sending a mission to Rome related to the Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494. This treaty had divided the undiscovered world between Spain and Portugal. On the other side of the world, approaching from the Americas, Spain had already claimed the Molucca Islands. These Spice Islands were the source of the cloves, nutmeg and mace which were some of the spice imports which brought riches to Portugal, and which Portugal was determined to retain.

D Manuel aimed to enlist the Pope’s support in his claim to the Spice Islands and one of the ways was to send a mission to Rome that would dazzle the papal court with a display that would outshine anything that had been done before.

To head this important mission, the king selected the famous navigator Tristão da Cunha (who left his name to the Atlantic archipelago), backed up by the lawyer Diogo Pacheco, and João de Faria, the expert on ecclesiastical affairs.

Knowing Leo’s reputation, D Manuel acquired appropriate gifts for him such as Chinese porcelain, exotic birds and animals, a selection of gifts which would reflect Portuguese conquests in the East and Portugal’s new role as leader of the Church and of all Christendom.

Artisans set to work to create works of art befitting a pope, using the rarest textiles, precious metals and gems. Amongst the gifts were an altar frontal of the finest brocade sewn with pearls and precious metals, a tabernacle of gold, cloths garnished with pearls and unpolished rubies and a selection of unusual birds and animals to represent the discovered lands of the East.

There were leopards, a cheetah, parrots and Indian fowl, rare dogs from India, a Persian horse and a young white elephant recently brought from India. The elephant was of course Hanno, who had been trained to dance to the music of pipes and to respond to commands in both Konkani and Portuguese.

As well as these exotic animals, the mission to Rome included horses and mules for transport, seventy dignitaries with their servants and other attendants – 143 men in all. Once again embarked, these animals could all be accommodated in cages below deck except for the elephant, which was shackled on deck between two masts.

How Hanno got to Rome and what he did there will follow next month in part two.

By Lynne Booker
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Lynne Booker, along with her husband Peter, founded the Algarve History Association. [email protected]

Sarcophagus of D Manuel I
Stained glass image of D Manuel I at the Monastery of Batalha
The Pope’s Elephant by Silvio A. Bedini