Sculpture of Hanno at the Villa Madama in Rome

The Pope’s Elephant || Part 2

Part one of The Pope’s Elephant showed that immediately after his election in 1513, Pope Leo X determined to make Rome the centre of European culture. Amongst the first to seek an audience with the new Pope was the Portuguese Ambassador to Rome, João de Faria.

D Manuel I of Portugal was keen to showcase its overseas achievements by sending an amazing embassy, including a selection of the great riches from those regions recently discovered by the Portuguese. As well as gold, pearls and precious metals, the king sent a number of exotic animals, including, of course, Hanno the elephant.

The embassy set off by sea from Lisbon to the sound of cheering. The fleet made stages at Alicante, Ibiza and Majorca. Everywhere the harbours buzzed with frenzied activity – both on the harbourside and in the small boats which greeted the fleet. Everyone was keen to view this unusual sight of an elephant. Between Majorca and Porto Ercole, the fleet was assailed by a tempest but arrived safely on Italian soil.

Disembarking Hanno was no easy task, even though there was no lack of available boats. No one wanted the risk of having an elephant on board his boat. The local magistrate eventually commandeered a launch and arranged for appropriate scaffolding to help Hanno ashore.

The story of the elephant and strange-looking foreigners brought people rushing to see the spectacle. They travelled great distances by foot or on horseback and they joined in the parade on its way to Rome.

In Corneto, people were so desperate to see Hanno that they leapt in huge numbers onto the roofs of houses, and many collapsed as a consequence. In order to satisfy the common curiosity, Hanno had to spend the night in the piazzas so that all could see him, and even thunderstorms did not discourage these spectators.

The event was so popular that it was impossible to find a vacant hostel for miles around.

Hanno was not used to such crowds; to the incessant rain; and to the hard roads over such a distance. On the picturesque route between Civitavecchia and Rome, the rain continued to pour down. Poor Hanno was tiring and his feet were sore, and although unused to all the loud noises around him, he maintained his gentle attitude.

Just outside Rome, the mission arrived at their appointed resting place of the villa of Cardinal Adriano di Corneto. Arriving a month before the mission was scheduled to enter the Eternal City, the embassy thought there would be time to rest, but the crowds swarmed around the villa. People brought sledgehammers and picks to break into the building where Hanno was sheltering, and used ladders to get inside. Faria sought a safe refuge for Hanno, but wherever he sheltered, the crowds followed.

The Pope chose the first Sunday of Lent for the Portuguese Mission to enter Rome. Tradition dictated that legations should spend the night at Porta Flaminia before making their formal entry into the city. At the moment of entry on March 19, there was a huge thunderstorm, but as they passed through the ruined gate in the Aurelian wall, the rain stopped, and the sun came out. The Roman populace took it as a sign that God looked favourably upon the Portuguese king and his undertakings.

Clearly reflecting Portugal’s new-found wealth and global importance, in the brilliantly imaginative procession there were Portuguese musicians, courtiers, clergy, horses and mules draped in gold and silver lame; around the ambassadors were the Swiss guard, trumpeters and pipers; a black man mounted on a white Persian horse with a spotted cheetah sitting behind; a Moorish mahout guiding Hanno, bearing a huge silver tower on a silver coffer; mace bearers, foreign dignitaries, mules pulling cages of parrots, Indian fowl, rare Indian dogs and other exotic beasts.

Hanno excited the most interest, as he played to the crowds by raising his trunk first to one side and then to the other. The historian Damião de Góis later commented that “it was a thing richer in quality than the memory of man will ever see”. As the procession passed the Castel Sant’Angelo, Hanno approached the Pope’s open window and devoutly knelt to His Holiness. He then filled his trunk at a nearby fountain, and sprayed the water high enough to reach the pontiff and drench nearby watchers, to Leo’s great amusement.

Next day, the Portuguese ambassadors declared their obedience to the Pope, and itemised Portuguese successes in the Near East, Africa and Asia and their converts to Christianity. The Pope praised the virtues of the Portuguese people and urged them to unite against the menace of the Turks and other infidels.

Accompanied by the cardinals, Leo inspected the gifts of the Portuguese mission, the value of which Fra Gratia de Francia estimated at more than 80,000 ducats.

The Pope’s biographer Fabronio declared that there had been no finer event in that epoch. But the gift which most pleased Pope Leo was Hanno the elephant.

The story of Hanno is taken from The Pope’s Elephant: An Elephant’s Journey From Deep in India to the Heart of Rome by Silvio A Bedini, Penguin Books 2000. Part three next month will cover Hanno’s life in Rome and his influence on Italian culture.

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

Sculpture of Hanno at the Villa Madama in Rome
Image of D Manuel I in a stained glass window in the Monastery in Batalha