Hanno - the pet elephant of Pope Leo X
A 16TH CENTURY POPE BURIED HIS PET ELEPHANT UNDER THE VATICAN
BY SARAH LASKOW
20 OCT 2015
In February of 1962, while digging up the Vatican's Belvedere Courtyard
to modernize a heating and cooling system, a group of Italian workers
hit bone. There was a large tooth and four pieces of a giant jawbone,
and at first they thought they had found a dinosaur.
But the bones were not fossilized, and when the custodian of the
Vatican Library collection had them examined, he learned that they
belonged to a much more modern mammal—an elephant.
For decades, no one inquired further into the provenance of the
elephant skeleton buried beneath the Vatican, until in the 1980s and
90s, the Smithsonian's Historian Emeritus, Silvio Bedini, uncovered the
elephant's history. He published the results of his research in 1997,
in "The Pope's Elephant", the most thorough study to date of the
elephant that lived in the Cortile del Belvedere.
His name was Annone—or, once anglicized, Hanno—and he belonged to Pope
Leo X, who was elected pope in 1513. Hanno was not just a pet: he
played a part in the politics of Portuguese expansion and made a cameo
in the Protestant Reformation. But above all, Hanno was a wonder. No
elephant had been in Italy since the Roman empire fell, and the entire
country clamored to get a glimpse of him.
Hanno the Elephant arrived in Italy in the winter of 1514, and on his
slow march to Rome, he left a path of destruction in his wake. He
wasn't such a large elephant (his shoulder reached about four feet
tall), and he did not move very fast, especially on the hard Italian
road, which hurt his feet. But wherever the elephant went, people
wanted to see him, and they trampled fields, crashed in roofs, and tore
through walls in order to get a glimpse.
Hanno had come from India, by way of Portugal. In the early 16th
century, the Portuguese monarchy was expanding its reach throughout the
world, trading with India and the East Indies, and consolidating
control over the spice trade. As part of this commercial enterprise,
the menagerie in Lisbon was filling with strange creatures from across
the globe, and a decade before Hanno came to Italy, Portugal had sent a
previous pope parrots, mandrils, leopards and a whole bunch of monkeys.
At the time that Giovanni di Lorenzo de'Medici (of the famous
Florentine Medici family) became Pope Leo X, the Portuguese king,
Manuel I, was working to solidify his country's hold on the spice
trade. The Portuguese expansion over the oceans had threatened the
monopoly that overland traders had held, and Egypt, which had long
benefited from that monopoly, was pushing the Pope to pull back on
Portugal. Egyptian leaders did have leverage: they controlled Jerusalem
and could destroy Christian holy sites, if the Pope side against them.
It was traditional for Christian rulers to send a gift to a new pope
upon his election, and Manuel I knew that this was a political
opportunity, as well. He could ask for money, to expand his fleet of
ships and artillery, and he could obtain the Pope's blessing for
Portuguese expansionism. He carefully planned what he would
send—textiles, a gold chalice, a brocade altar cover, and other
treasures wrought with gold and jewels. He sent a cheetah, leopards,
parrots, strange dogs and a Persian horse. And he sent Hanno.
Italians knew that elephants existed: Hannibal had famously crossed the
Alps with war elephants, and Roman consuls had kept them in wealthier
times. Every few hundred years or so, for the previous millennium, an
elephant had appeared in some European court. But Hanno was the first
to come to Italy in centuries, making him the ultimate must-see
attraction across the empire.
On the 70-mile journey from the Port of Hercules to Rome, Bedini wrote,
“the caravan that was following behind daily increased in size,
supplemented by workers from the towns, peasants from the fields, and
gentlemen from their villas. All were curious, avidly seeking a view of
the great animals and the strangers speaking a strange language who
accompanied it.” The elephant had to spend the night in a piazza so
that curiosity seekers wouldn't storm the stable it was supposed to
stay in, and all along the way, wealthy noblemen tried to convince the
elephant's handlers to take a detour to their castles.
Hanno arrived in Rome just before he was scheduled to appear before the
Pope. And in his first official appearance, he made an equally dramatic
impression. Walking through the streets of Rome adorned with handsome
vestment and with a silver tower on his back, Hanno dropped to his
knees and bowed his head low upon reaching the Pope, before lifting
back up to trumpet three times in the air. Then he sucked water into
his trunk and sprayed water down on everyone assembled—including the
Pope, who thought the whole of the elephant's performance delightful.
Sadly, though, Hanno's time in Rome was short. He was four years old
when he arrived, and he lived to be seven. But immediately, he became a
favorite of the pope, who wrote to King Manuel I:
“It was the elephant which excited the greatest astonishment to the
whole world, as much from the memories it evoked of the ancient past,
for the arrival of similar beast was fairly frequent in the days of
ancient Rome... One is almost tempted to put faith in the assertion of
the idolators who pretend that a certain affinity exists between these
animals and mankind. The sight of this quadruped provides us with the
greatest amusement and has become for our people an object of
The pope built a special building to house the elephant, on the
Courtile de Belvedere, and allowed the people of Rome to visit him each
weekend. And on occasion, he was paraded through Rome.
Not that this generally went well. Once, the Pope had a famous poet
dressed in Roman clothing, and perched on Hanno's back as part of a
parade through the city. But the noise of the parade—the trumpets, the
drums—made the elephant panic, and eventually, he threw his rider.
Another time, a cannon spooked him, and he stampeded, injuring some of
his fans. And at one viewing, the crowds were so tight that nobles on
horseback ended up crushing less wealthy people to death.
Hanno almost had competition as the strangest and most wondrous animal
to live in 16th century Rome. In the winter of 1515, two years after he
had sent Hanno to the pope, Manuel I decided to send another animal—a
The rhinoceros, another gift from India, had been living in Lisbon, as
part of the royal Portuguese menagerie. And in some ways, it was even
more marvelous than the elephant. While the Portuguese fleet had
brought back a few elephants from overseas, there was only one
rhino—and when it had been pitted against an elephant in an arena, it
had lowered its horn, made preparations to attack, and scared the
elephant so badly that it had torn through an iron gate and run back to
In December, the Portuguese packed the rhino on a ship and sent it
towards Rome. And while the rhino made a few appearances along its
route, the ship sank before it could reach Rome. Rhinoceri can swim,
but this one was shackled to the deck of the boat, and it drowned. Its
carcass eventually washed ashore at Villefranche, on the French coast,
and, undeterred, the Portuguese king ordered that it be stuffed,
mounted, and sent on to Rome.
It's not clear, though, what happened to the rhinoceros. In his book,
Bedini investigates rumors that the pope sent it to family in Florence,
and that it was kept in a museum there until relatively recently. But
his research into the museum's papers did not turn up a record of the
rhino carcass. Even at the time that the rhino was lost at sea, there
were rumors that it was never sent; some people claimed to glimpse it
in Portugal years after it was supposedly dead and on display.
Hanno's end was less mysterious, if similarly horrific.
In 1516, he started having trouble breathing and was clearly in pain.
Doctors were called in, and they determined that the elephant was
constipated. They put together a plan of treatment— a suppository with
a high dose of gold, a common treatment at the time. It quickly killed
There was an element of mysticism to the elephant's death. Not longer
before, a Franciscan monk who traveled with 20,000 followers predicted
the deaths of a number of Church leaders, up to and including the pope.
He also prophesized the death of Hanno, and his keeper. The elephant
died within the prescribed period; so did the keeper, although his
death got much less attention.
The pope mourned Hanno, writing a paean to the dead elephant. When he
commissioned a mural commemorating the animal, he insisted that it be
drawn by the artist Raphael himself, not just his studio.
This affection didn't escape the attention of the papal satirists. "The
subject formed the basis for one of the first published criticism
leveled against him by German supporters of Martin Luther," Bedini
writes. (Luther's 95 Theses would not appear until the following year.)
And Pietro Aretino wrote The Last Will and Testament of the Elephant
Hanno, a document which calls out particular people in the hierarchy of
Rome. Just as the relics of saints were parceled out among the churches
of Europe, Hanno detailed which cardinals should receive his body
parts, including his skin, tusks, knees, tongue and, even, his penis.
But in reality, most of Hanno's body remained in the Vatican. His tusks
were removed and stored elsewhere, but the rest of him was buried
beneath the courtyard where he had lived—and where his bones still lay
In early 16th century Rome, at the height of the Italian Renaissance,
when artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo thrived in the
Holy City, the decadent court of Pope Leo X was a place where visitors
could find pleasures and entertainment more exotic than anything they
had previously imagined. Among the Pope's great joys was his menagerie
of exotic animals, and the prize of his collection was an Indian
elephant named Hanno, presented to him by the King of Portugal. The
Pope's Elephant by Silvio A. Bedini, historian emeritus at the
Smithsonian Institution, describes Hanno's powerful effect on the Papal
Court and on the Roman citizenry. This elephant--trained to kneel,
dance, weep, and trumpet on command--led parades and entertained at
public festivals and was commemorated in paintings, poetry, and
sculpture. For Romans, Hanno became the preeminent symbol of the
alluring Orient; for Pope Leo's detractors, the elephant became a
symbol of Roman corruption. Bedini's rigorous research and eager
enthusiasm for his subject and his judicious selection of whimsical
illustrations make reading The Pope's Elephant a quirky and delightful
pastime. --Michael Joseph Gross
Deep within this mountain of meticulous research lies the story of a
Medici pope's fondness for a small albino elephant, gift of Portugal's
King Manuel I to the papal court. Son of Lorenzo the Magnificent, Leo X
(1451-1521) became pope at age 37, determined to enjoy the papacy,
bring artists and poets to Rome, and restore the city as a center of
Western culture. The book chronicles the diminutive pachyderm Hanno and
his journey from India to Portugal to Rome, where for two years he was
beloved and enjoyed by the people of the Vatican and used in
processions. Writers and artists, including Raphael, memorialized Hanno
in his lifetime and after his death in 1516; his remains were
identified at the Vatican in the 1960s. Bedini, historian emeritus of
the Smithsonian Institution, presents Hanno's story as an illuminating
footnote on the end of Europe's Golden Age, on local customs and
celebrations, on the human side of the mighty, and on the barbarity of
the times. Suitable for comprehensive natural history and religion
collections. Anna M. Donnelly, St. John's Univ. Lib., Jamaica, NY
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