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Strange beast

Albrecht Duerer's armour-plating determined many people's image of the rhinoceros for centuries. John Reeve looks at the life and work of Europe's first great printmaker

On 1 May (1515) was brought from India to the great and powerful King Emanuel of Portugal at Lisbon a live animal called a rhinoceros. His form is here represented. It has the colour of a speckled tortoise and it is covered with thick scales. It is like an elephant in size, but lower on its legs and almost invulnerable. It has a strong sharp horn on its nose, which it sharpens on stones. The stupid animal is the elephant's deadly enemy.

The elephant is very frightened of it, as, when they meet, the rhinoceros runs with its head down between its front legs and gores the stomach of the elephant and throttles it, and the elephant cannot fend it off. Because the animal is so well armed, there is nothing that the elephant can do to it.

It is also said that the rhinoceros is fast, lively and cunning."

So runs the original caption to an extraordinary woodcut currently on show in the Duerer exhibition at the British Museum. The great German artist Albrecht Duerer never actually saw the rhino but, like the rest of Europe, heard about it and, probably, saw a sketch with this description attached.

The image he created was to become one of his most celebrated: it fixed our idea of the rhino until the 20th century. It appeared on snuff boxes and dinner plates, coats of arms, apothecary jars, Persian textiles and Flemish tapestries. This woodcut was still illustrating German school textbooks when Adolf Hitler came to power in the 1930s.

Duerer's is not the rhino that we see today on David Attenborough programmes or at the zoo. It is in fact an extinct species of Indian rhino.

The specimen was the first rhinoceros to reach Europe alive since the 3rd century AD. It caused a great stir. It had been presented by the ruler of Gujarat, Sultan Muzafar II, tothe governor of Portuguese India, Alfonso d'Albuquerque, who sent it on to King Manuel I in Lisbon, where it arrived in May 1515. The king determined to put to the test the classical writer Pliny the Elder's description of a natural animosity between the rhinoceros and the elephant, and arranged for a fight to take place between the rhino and one of his elephants on June 3, 1515. The elephant fled. Later in the year the king dispatched the animal as a gift to Pope Leo X in Rome, but, after breaking the journey at Marseilles where it was seen by King Francis I of France and his queen, it drowned when the ship sank. One account states that its carcass was retrieved and stuffed for the Pope.

Duerer fixes this powerful image in our mind because of his skill as Europe's first great printmaker, recognised as such across Europe in his own lifetime and by artists ever since. He is the first printmaker whose career we can follow closely, thanks to his letters and dated works. He told one friend that while he was treated like a gentleman in Italy (where the art had a profound affect on him), in Germany he was treated like a sponger - but he did establish printmaking as a serious art, not a branch of anonymous craft.

Woodcut was popular as a cheap and quick medium for book illustrations - the block could be printed in the same press and at the same time as the type. Duerer established the woodcut as a major art form. He also invented modern watercolour and produced poetic landscapes, made pioneering self-portraits and studied human anatomy. He has been described as "the giddiest doodler in all art". The son of a goldsmith, he introduced the technique of etching, used for decorating armour, into printmaking. He also designed armour and in this print he arms his rhino with a metallic-looking skin, enhanced by the medium of woodcut (apparently this type of rhino did have deeply folded and faceted skin).

Duerer was a great innovator in subject matter and technique, and also an entrepreneur. He made his living from prints, had his own printing press, and controlled the entire process of production and sales at home and abroad. He fought hard for the copyright of his images, identifying them with a monogram made up of his initials (see above the rhino's ears).

He lived at a time of great change. The Gothic Middle Ages was coming to an end nearly everywhere - in England, the Tudors came to power when he was 14; the Habsburgs in Spain, Germany and the Netherlands began to assemble their European and World empires, as did Portugal and Britain - all perched on the Atlantic edge of Europe. Columbus reached America when Duerer was 21. At the eastern end of Mediterranean, Islam was squeezing Europe, having captured what is now Istanbul and the centuries-old Byzantine Empire; and would soon occupy Hungary, where Duerer's father came from.

Printing had at last been introduced (centuries after Asia) and so when marvels like this rhino appeared, they could be recorded for mass circulation. As could new religious ideas such as Protestantism: Martin Luther's famous protest against the Catholic Church in 1517 was two years after this print was made. Duerer also recorded the Reformation's leading figures.

This article is based on the catalogue of the British Museum exhibition, Albrecht Duerer and his Legacy edited by Giulia Bartram (British Museum Press 2002). The exhibition (sponsored by Wilmer, Cutler and Pickering) continues until March

John Reeve is keeper of education at the British Museum

Albrecht Duerer 1471-1528

Born in Nuremberg, Duerer was apprenticed at the age of 15 to a painter who also produced woodcuts. In Italy he met the great Venetian painter Giovanni Bellini. On his return he set up a workshop and introduced many Italian Renaissance ideas and styles to Northern Europe, and fused them with its own Gothic traditions. He studied maths and literature, and also wrote treatises on proportion, fortification and artistic theory.

Lesson ideas

Art key stage 2l Picasso made animals out of found objects, such as a monkey from a toy car and a bicycle seat. What could you make a rhino from?

* Dragons are made up from many other animals - Duerer's rhino looks as if it has been put together in this way. Invent your own animal, combining parts from real and imaginary beasts.

* Cartoons: make speech bubbles for Duerer's rhino, and perhaps show his encounter with the elephant.

* Design a hatmaskcoat of armspub sign incorporating a rhino.

Music and poetryKS2

* In The Carnival of the Animals the French composer Saint-SAens portrays the swan with the cello; what instrument would the rhino play? Write a tune and some poetry to describe him.

* Look at Edward Lear, Rudyard Kipling and Ogden Nash animal verses, and stories. Try your hand at a rhino limerick or riddle.

Science KS2

* Find out about rhinos from websites for zoos and the Natural History Museum. Are they "stupid" or "fast, lively and cunning"?

Art KS34

* Research the key European and British events in Duerer's lifetime. Which of his works do you think reflect the turbulent times in which he lived? Are prints inherently a more effective medium for certain kinds of topic than other media?

Art KS4, A-level

* Research works by Duerer. Make a selection for your own small Duerer exhibition.

How would you group the works? Might you juxtapose work by others from his time or ours?

Further reading For printmaking, see A Griffiths, Prints and Printmaking (British Museum Press, 2nd edition 1996).

For the rhino see T H Clarke, The Rhinoceros from Duerer to Stubbs 1515-1799 (Philip Wilson pound;10.99)

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