Sunday, 13 December 2015

Two rhinoceroses


The rhinoceros was an exceeding rare, little known animal in the 18th century.  Nonetheless there were two famous rhinoceroses who made it to France at this time.  The first was the famous Clara.  Born in around 1738 in India, Clara had been adopted as a tiny calf by the director of the Dutch East India Company, Jan Albert Sichterman and was unusually domesticated. In 1740, when she threatened to outgrow her surroundings, she had been handed over or sold to Douwemout Van der Meer,  the captain of a Company ship Knabenhoe.  She accompanied him on the voyage home  to the Netherlands, arriving in Rotterdam on 22 July 1741.   Van de Meer successfully overcame the considerable difficulties of feeding and transporting an adult rhinoceros  and for the next 17 years made his living touring Europe with Clara.  Paintings and representations of her abound.

An anonymous Venetian painting gives a glimpse of Clara's transport wagon (p.45-6)

In early 1749 it was the turn of France to be swept by la rhinomanie.  Van de Meer was first enticed to Versailles where he was allowed to house Clara in the Menagerie through January.  The circumstances surrounding the invitation are not known in detail; however,  Van der Meer was sufficiently encouraged to propose to sell Clara to Louis XV for 100,000 ecus, an impertinent offer which was imperiously refused.  In February Clara appeared at the Foire St Germain, where she could be viewed by the public for the modest sum of twenty-four sous.  Casanova recounts how his current mistress mistook the show's dark-skinned and stout doorman for the rhinoceros itself.  Again Clara's appearance generated a host of memorabilia  - from, coiffures à la rhinocéros to expensive ormolu clocks with rhinoceros bases.

The Versailles rhinoceros

No-one in Paris had much expectation of seeing a rhinoceros again.  However, the royal Menagerie later acquired a specimen of its own.  The Versailles rhinoceros was a bull rhino. He was transported from Calcutta in 1769 as a gift from M. Chevalier, the governor of Chandernagore.  He arrived in Lorient in Brittany on 4  June 1770 after a voyage of six months; presumably  he was caged on deck since the ship's log noted that he had become tolerant of a goat which was allowed to eat hay from between his legs. The majority of  Menagerie animals, since they were gifts, were left to take their chances on the road. The elephant and lion were both been forced to make the long journey from the coast to Versailles on foot. The rhinoceros was not expected to walk, but fared little better, being chained up in the stables belonging to the Compagnie des Indes  for almost three months whilst strenuous efforts were made to construct a vehicle strong enough to transport him. The Royal government paid for two days of work by carpenters, thirty-six by locksmiths, fifty-seven by blacksmiths and - tellingly - seventy-two by a team of wheelwright.  Even so the resultant wagon collapsed en route. The rhinoceros left for Versailles on 24th August 1770 and finally arrived on 11th September (see p.45-6)

One of the few depictions of the Versailles rhino: Engraving by Miger after a drawing by Nicholas  Maréchal, from Culvier,  La Ménagerie du Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle (1804)
For the next twenty-two years, the rhinoceros - who never seems to have had a name - remained on display. He was provided with an enclosure of 23.4 m long and 19.5 m wide, with a muddy pool to bath in.  Various  natural scientists examined him, including Petrus Camper, who drew him in July 1777.  Buffon saw him on at least three occasions;  on a visit to the semi-deserted Menagerie during the Revolution, he reported that the rhinoceros would come eagerly up to the bars of its cage to be patted (p.11)  However, the rhino was also said to have killed two young men who incautiously entered its enclosure.

Drawing of the rhino's head
by Petrus Camper

The rhino died in September 1793. He was thought to have drowned in his pond, but dissection revealed him to have been the victim of Revolutionary violence, hacked to death with a sabre.  His remains were taken to the Jardin des Plantes and dissected in the shelter of a tent specially erected for the purpose.  The body was stuffed by Jean-Claude Metrud and Félix Vicq d'Azyr using then pioneering techniques.  The hide was mounted on a frame and the skeleton conserved separately.  Both may still be seen in the Musée d'histoire naturelle in Paris, which, like most such museums, boasts a large and distasteful taxidermy collection.


I finally had to succumb to a copy of Glynis Ridley's 2005 book
Clara's Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-century Europe
[All you could ever want to know about Clara - extracts on Amazon & Googlebooks]

"Clara et la « rhinomania » en Europe au XVIIIe siècle", Les yeux d'Argus [blog], post of 11.03.15.

Charissa Bremer-David, "Animal lovers are informed" in 
Oudry's Painted Menagerie: Portraits of Exotic Animals in Eighteenth-Century Europe, Getty Publications, 2007  p.91-103

On the Versailles rhino:
"Famous rhinos: rhino of Versailles" on Rhinos website

"Louis XV's rhinoceros" Science and curiosities at the Court of Versailles (2011 Exhibition website)

L. C. Rookmaaker, "Histoire du rhinocéros de Versailles (1770-1793)" Revue d'histoire des sciences 1983  Vol 36(3)  p.307-18

________,The Rhinoceros in Captivity: A List of 2439 Rhinoceroses Kept from Roman Times to 1994 (1998) p.95-6

No comments:

Post a Comment

Print Friendly and PDF