Tuesday, June 9, 2015

A Rare Rhinoceros: Unraveling the Mystery of the Uffizi Rhino

Rhino in Josepth Presents his Father and Brothers to the Pharaoh
Being a biology major, I admittedly don’t know much about horticulture. Embarrassingly, I didn’t know anything about horticulture, including exactly what that word meant until I signed up for this course. I have learned about the anatomy and dispersion of plants abstractly, but mainly what I do know a lot about is genetics, ecology, and evolution. It is for this reason that a piece of art I recently saw in Florence’s famous Uffizi museum drew my eye. It was entitled Joseph Presents his Father and Brothers to the Pharaoh and it actually depicted a rhinoceros in its background. Of all the artworks I had come across, I had never before seen one with a rhino. The painting is by Francesco Granacci and I honestly thought the inconspicuous beast was a mistake until we visited Cortona a couple days later. There, on display, were fossils of ancient rhinos that once roamed Italy wildly. It wasn’t until I conducted further research though that I found out the one in Granacci’s painting wasn’t one that was wild, but imported.

It turns out, there were primitive rhinos roaming around Europe thousands of years ago. The scientific genus for this Eurasian native rhino is Stephanorhinus and it went extinct far before imported rhinos started appearing anywhere near Italy. This is the fossil on display in Cortona.

Rhino fossil in the Cortona museum 
As for the rhino in the Renaissance painting, it seems that no one ever felt the need to explain it. After extensive research, I originally thought it could have been Clara, a famous rhinoceros imported from India and paraded all around Europe as a spectacle, just as I see it today. But seeing as the piece is dated around 1515 and Clara didn’t arrive in Europe before the 1700s, that conclusion is out. My mistake in this interpretation was that I assumed since the painter was Italian, that the work was set in Italy, which I now know is completely wrong.

            The work is, of course, a scene from the Bible that takes place in Egypt, Africa, where most people know rhino’s today to be native (not Egypt parse, but Africa). That makes sense, but then it struck me, how could an Italian painter know exactly what a rhinoceros looked like before they began to be imported and widely seen?

            So, diving even deeper into the rhino mystery, I discovered that the first imported Rhinoceros in Europe (since ancient Roman times) had occurred most likely in the same year, or time span, Granacci completed the intriguing painting. Therefore, my final verdict on the rare rhinoceros is that Granacci simply took inspiration from the famous depictions of said first rhino. Thus it is proven, there is always something more to be learned, and the landscapes of time and space continuously change, constantly producing different normalities of both plants and animals.
Kaylee Platz-Panico

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