Tomb of D. Manuel I

The Pope’s Elephant || Part 3

Hanno’s life in Rome and his influence on Italian culture

Of all his rich gifts, it was Hanno the Elephant that most pleased Pope Leo X. On days when Hanno was paraded through the streets, crowds gathered to see him and Hanno’s presence spurred on a blossoming in the arts.

But after just over two years in Rome, this young elephant fell ill. One day in early June of 1516, the listless Hanno lay in his pen, unable to move. Obviously in pain, Hanno also had great difficulty in breathing. Pope Leo sent for all his own personal physicians, and urged them to cure his favourite pet. Not being vets, nor having any experience of large animals, these medical men could do no better than treat Hanno as if he were human.

Hanno was clearly constipated, and they prescribed a purgative, large and strong, and then had the problem of forcing the beast to take it. The extra pressure on his system was too much, and poor Hanno expired. He had been in Rome for two years, two months and 26 days.

It was determined that Hanno be buried in the Belvedere Courtyard, and Pope Leo had an epitaph written in Latin, and carved in marble (see below).

Pope Leo was determined to have a record of his pet, and commissioned Raphael Urbino to paint a huge fresco of the elephant at the entrance to St Peter’s. That image has disappeared, but at least four contemporary images of Hanno survive in the Vatican. The image of Hanno appears in three separate works in the Loggie of Raphael in the Apostolic Palace, two paintings and one stucco bas-relief.

During Hanno’s lifetime, Giovanni da Udine was commissioned to execute a fountain for Cardinal Giulio de’Medici, to be set into a grotto in the gardens of the Villa Madama on the slope of Monte Mario. As the feature of the fountain, Udine chose the head of Hanno carved in white marble, selected because the beast was a white elephant from Ceylon, its trunk serving as the spout for the water. The fountain became a popular subject for foreign artists visiting Rome and it survives to this day – albeit in a poor condition.

In 1538, Portuguese architect and artist, Francisco D’Ollanda, visited Rome and incorporated four elephants in sketches for the fountains at the Agoa Livre at the royal palace of Rossio. Another design, not built, was of a single elephant supporting its mahout with a battle tower on its back. Sadly, no monumental image of Hanno remains in Lisbon, and we know of them only through D’Ollanda’s sketches.

During his lifetime and after his death, Hanno was depicted in a variety of forms and media: fresco, oil, water colour, chalk, crayon, pen and ink, stucco, marble, intarsia and on a Majolica platter (now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London). In the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford, four different sketches originally attributed to Raphael show Hanno in four positions. The drawings are in red crayon on grey paper and are now credited to Giulio Romano.

A recent discovery has revealed that Hanno’s existence did not go unnoticed outside Lisbon. In Montemor-O-Novo, a large retable was taken down for restoration in the tiny church of São Pedro da Ribeira. Behind, on the wall, there was a forgotten fresco of Hanno, protected from the weather and undisturbed by any church redecorations.

In February 1962, workers installing a new heating system for the Vatican Library uncovered unfossilised bones, clearly those of a large beast. It was determined that these bones had belonged to a young male elephant which had died before the age of 10. Not until Silvio Bedini began his quest in the 1990s did anybody consider that these bones might be those of Hanno. Even more recently, a Vatican archaeologist noticed hanging high on a wall in the Archives two tusks, both from a young Indian elephant. They are Hanno’s, and had hung there forgotten for more than four centuries.

Pope Leo X and D Manuel I died within three weeks of each other in 1521, and D Manuel’s tomb in the Jerónimos in Lisbon is remarkable for the two marble elephants which bear his sarcophagus.

Poor Hanno, wrenched from his tropical home in Ceylon, shipped around the Cape, and then on to Rome; honoured as the Pope’s plaything, destined for an early death; remembered in paint and marble. Buried and forgotten. The American historian Silvio Bedini completed a wonderful job in resurrecting his story, and giving him a proper place in Portuguese and Vatican history.

Under this great hill I lie buried
Mighty Elephant which the King Manuel
Having conquered the Orient
Sent as captive to Pope Leo X.
At which the Roman people marveled –
A beast not seen for a long time
And in my brutish breast they perceived human feelings.
Fate envied me my residence in the blessed Latium
And had not the patience to let me serve my master a full three years.

But I wish, oh gods, that the time which Nature would have assigned to me,
and Destiny stole away,
You will add to the life of the great Leo.
He lived seven years
He died of angina
He measured twelve palms in height
Giovanni Battista Branconio dell’Aquila
Privy chamberlain to the pope
And provost of the custody of the elephant
Has erected this In 1516, the 8th of June,
In the fourth year of the pontificate of Leo X.
That which Nature has stolen away
Raphael of Urbino with his art has restored.

By Lynne Booker
|| [email protected]

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

Pope Leo X with Cardinals Giulio de Medici and Luigi de Rossi
Tomb of D. Manuel I
One of Raphael’s sketches of Hanno