Hanno, Adventures of a Sri Lankan Elephant in Rome

The first time elephants were seen in Europe was in 280 BC when Pyrrhus of Epirus and his army of 25,000 men and 20 elephants crossed from north Africa to Terentus in the heel of Italy to begin their march to Rome. The Romans were bewildered, not to say terrified, by the huge creatures and not knowing what to call them, dubbed them ‘Lucanian oxen’. In the following centuries elephants from both Africa and Asia became a familiar sight in the amphitheatres, parade grounds and battle fields of the classical world. But with the fall of Rome and Europe’s descent into the dark ages the elephant, although vaguely remembered, was rarely seen again until 802 AD.

In that year the caliph of Baghdad, Harun al Raschid, gave Charlemagne, the Holy Roman Emperor, an elephant as part of a goodwill gesture. The creature caused a sensation until two years later when it drowned while crossing the Rhine. About  400 years later Frederick II of Sicily (1212-50) was given an elephant by the sultan of Cairo. He rode it into Milan during his victorious entry of the city in 1237. It died in 1248.

The first elephant in England since classical times arrived 1255 as a gift to Henry III from Louis IX of France who had brought it back from the Holy Land on his return from the Crusades. A special house was built for it in the Tower of London but the harsh northern winter proved too much and it died in 1258. In 1550 before leaving Spain to return to Vienna, Prince Maximillian later to become Holy Roman Emperor Maximillian II, made a quick trip to Lisbon to meet his uncle King John III. While there he visited the royal menagerie where he was fascinated by the many exotic birds and animals from the East but in particularly by the elephants. Consequently his uncle promised to give him one. He suggested that Maximilian name the elephant Sulayman, after the sultan of Turkey, who was then the West’s most feared enemy  “so that in this way he becomes your slave and is properly humbled.” When Maximillian disembarked in Genoa during his homeward journey in the summer of 1551 he was delighted to find that the promised elephant had arrived just before him. Soon after the royal entourage together with Sulayman set off for the long trek to Vienna, crossing the snow covered Alps in mid-winter, and arriving in the city in March 7th 1552. As the royal party rode through the streets Maximillian was somewhat peeved to find his elephant attracted more attention and admiration than he himself did. It seems that in the crush to see and touch the strange creature a child was separated from its mother and fell at the elephant’s feet. The creature gently picked up the child and placed him back in his mother’s arms. This so astonished the throng that a plaque was set up at the place where it happened and it may still be seen there today.

It is very difficult to know whether these and a few other elephants that turned up in Europe in the late Middle Ages were from Africa, India or Sri Lanka. One is tempted to think that the elephant given to Charlemagne by the Caliph was from  India as the Muslims had already conquered Sindh by then. On the other hand it is also known that the Arabs had a flourishing trade with Sri Lanka during this period. When Dom Lourenso landed in Colombo in 1505 he saw Arab ships loading elephants to be taken to Cambay. So an elephant from ‘India’ could well have originally been shipped from Sri Lanka.

Henry III’s elephant was almost certainly not Asian as a drawing of it from life by Matthew Paris shows it with the sloping forehead and large ears of the African variety. This drawing by Paris can claim to be Europe’s first reasonably accurate representation of the elephant since Roman times. The picture shows a man near the elephant’s trunk and the script under its belly reads;  “By the size of the man drawn here the dimensions of the animal may be imagined.” Maximillian’s elephant may well have been from Sri Lanka but the lack of documentation make it impossible to say.

At the beginning of the 16th century Portugal was still a small kingdom on the outer edge of Europe which nobody took very seriously. King Emmanuel I was proud of his newly conquered empire in the East and was anxious to get recognition for his achievements. To this end he had taken to sending gifts of exotic animals – talking parrots, trained monkeys, brightly plumed birds – to other European monarchs and prelates but up to then this had earned him like more than derision. So finally he decided on a gesture so spectacular and so extravagant that it would be bound to win him admiration if not envy.

On the 12th  March 1515 an embassy from King Emmanuel to Pope Leo X arrived in Rome to an enthusiastic welcome. It was met at the gates of the city by a select body of gorgeously attired cardinals and then led through the streets to the appointed accommodation. The embassy was headed by Tristan da  Cunha – soldier, seaman, former Viceroy of India and discoverer of the tiny south Atlantic island that still bears his name,  da  Cunha brought with him generous samples of all the riches and wonders of the East; jewels, fine cloth, aromatic gums, spices and especially strange animals. These included a panther that was trained to hunt like a dog, two leopards and magnificent Persian steeds. A rhinoceros from Gujarat was to be included as well but the ship carrying it sunk and the poor creature drowned. However, after its carcass was washed up it was stuffed and exhibited throughout Europe. Albrecht Durer, the greatest German artist of the age, saw this stuffed rhino and made his celebrated engraving of it. The most famous of the exotic animals gifted to the Pope however was an elephant from Sri Lanka.

Many subsequent accounts of the Portuguese embassy say that this elephant was from India but this is not correct. In the early days of Portuguese expansion ‘India’ referred to just about everywhere from the Straits of Hormuz to Malacca. When Don Lourenco landed in Colombo in 1505 the king of Kotte gave him cinnamon and an elephant  “as tribute in return for Portuguese protection.”  That, at least, is how the Portuguese saw it. The Sri Lankan king however was probably doing no more than trying to humour these pushy, potentially belligerent, strangers in the hope that they would go away and not return. The elephant was taken to Goa and later shipped to Lisbon. Gaspar Correa was referring to this creature when he wrote that  “the viceroy (at Goa) sent a very small elephant, one of those brought (from Sri Lanka) by Don Lourenco, which was the first that ever went to Portugal.” Details of the elephants subsequent stay in the Lisbon are meagre. Undoubtedly he was kept in the royal menagerie.

Led by a herald bearing the arms of the Portuguese king the embassy made its way to the pontifical palace where the Pope stood on the balcony to receive it. When the elephant arrived, it stopped and bowed three times to the Pope. This was taken as symbolic of the conquered pagan East submitting to the Truth of Rome. The gasps of amazement that accompanied the animal’s genuflection were due in part to the prevalence of the old superstition that elephants had no joints in their bodies. The elephant then took water in its trunk from a nearby trough and showered the multitudes, to the great amusement of the Pope and his court. Six days later the public audience took place and the gifts were handed to the Pope in the presence of the assembled ambassadors and grandees from all the royal courts of Europe. The extravagance and novelty of it all was dazzling and it was clear to everyone that Portugal had arrived. The next day the Pope and specially invited guests retired to the pontiff’s private garden to examine the animals more carefully. The panther’s hunting skills were demonstrated on some hapless rabbits and birds much to everyone’s satisfaction. When the elephant was introduced to its new master the Pope declared that he would name it Hanno (Annone).

Hanno became the talk of the town. Cardinal Giuliano Medici commissioned the sculptor’ Goivanno of Udine to make a fountain in the form of an elephant squirting water from its trunk. The Villa Madama, where this fountain was built is now the official residence of the prime minister of Italy and although the fountain itself was long ago destroyed the head and trunk of Hanno can still be seen. The Pope’s nephew Lorenzo asked that Hanno be lent for a grand procession he was organising in Florence but fearing that the long trek north might endanger the creature, the request was refused. The great Renaissance painter Raphael was working in the Vatican at the time and he included Hanno in a fresco he was doing in the Loggia. The original is now lost but a copy was made by an unknown artist, probably one of Raphael’s students, and is now in the Stiftung Museen Preussischer in Berlin. From this drawing we can say that Hanno was a young adult, probably male, with small tusks (or more correctly, lushes), hairs on his head and in fairly good condition. This last point is important because it shows that despite all the travel he had been subjected to, the strange and no doubt inappropriate food he was fed and the cold winters he had to endure, Hanno was still able to thrive. He must have been docile and used to his mahouts too because the drawing also shows a man astride his back and another fondly and apparently without concern, stroking his trunk. Both mahouts are Europeans wearing European clothes of the era but who they were and how and where they learned the art of elephant driving we shall never know. Another point of interest in this drawing is the two goads or ankushs that both mahouts hold. The usual ankush is in effect a spear of differing length with a hook protruding from near the top end. The mahout on Hanno’s back has this type of ankush but the other man’s is quite different. Instead of a pointed end it has a crescent and from behind the hook is a spike. Four sharp points instead of the usual two. It is a fearsome looking implement and I have not seen another like it although I suspect it was of Indian origin. Overall, the drawing is extremely detailed and lifelike and the artist has made only one mistake in Hanno’s anatomy – he has depicted the end of the trunk flat rather than with the prehensile “finger’ characteristic of Asian elephants. He has also made the trunk just a little longer than it should be but this may have been done just to emphasis the animal’s strange appendage.

Pope Leo grew very fond of Hanno, calling him by pet names, showing him off to guests and having him dressed up in silk and gold brocade. But despite or perhaps because of all the attention he received he died only two years after his arrival leaving the Pope inconsolable. The Epistolae Obscuroum Virorum mocked the pontiff’s grief thus;  “This dead and the Pope is very sorry and they say that he will give a thousand ducats for the elephant for it was a marvellous beast, having a long snout in great abundance and when it saw the Pope it fell to its knees before him and said in a terrible voice, Bar! Bar! Bar!” There are different versions of why Hanno died. One says he suffocated after being covered with gold leaf for a glittering procession he was to take part in. According to this version the Pope spent nearly 5000 gold pieces on medicine and treatment trying to revive his ailing pet. Another account says he fell into the Tiber and the heavy wooden castle on his back caused him to sink and drown. Whatever the case, Hanno was buried near the Bronze Gate leading to the Vatican Gardens where an inscription was set up. It read  “Under this colossal mountain I lie, a colossal elephant, who King Emmanuel, after conquering the East, gave as a gift to Leo X. What nature carried off, Raphael of Urbino reproduced with his art.” This monument was destroyed during the sack of Rome later in the 16th century. Hanno’s influence in the Eternal City continued for many years after his death in the numerous images of elephants that were used to decorate fountains, gateways and buttresses. One of the best known of these is the elephant supporting an Egyptian obelisk outside the church of Santa Maria Minerva and which was carved by Lorenzo Bernini in 1667.

As a side note, another famous European artist who drew a Sri Lankan elephant was Rembrandt van Rijn  (1606-69). In 1637 a circus arrived in Amsterdam and among the sights on display was an elephant from Sri Lanka named Hansken. Just how this elephant got to Holland is not known. The Dutch did not take over the maritime provinces of Sri Lanka until 1656. Rembrandt must have been impressed by the strange creature and he did a quick but masterly sketch of it in charcoal. The drawing is now in the Graphische Sammlung Albertina in Vienna.