THE existence of the elephant – “nature’s great masterpiece... the only harmless great thing”, to use John Donne’s famous description – was well known to medieval Europeans, but captive pachyderms had disappeared from the continent shortly after the demise of the Roman Empire.
Their reappearance in the royal menageries of the 16th century,
the gifts of Asian potentates, caused a sensation.
As the subject of a celebrated memorial fresco by Raphael,
Hanno, an albino elephant sent in 1515 by the Sultan of Gujarat as
a gift to Manuel I of Portugal, is perhaps the most famous, but an
equal inspiration to all who saw him was Suleiman the
This young elephant bull, born in captivity in the royal stables
of the king of Kotte (Sri Lanka), arrived in Lisbon in 1542 with
the entourage of the first Asian embassy ever to come to Europe.
Given as a diplomatic gift for the Portuguese monarch John III, he
was, with no lack of irony, given the name of the Ottoman sultan
who had been the scourge of Christian armies before his conquests
were checked at the Siege of Vienna in 1529.
John III had intended Suleiman for his grandson Don Carlos (the
eldest son of Philip II of Spain), but, following a journey to the
Spanish capital Valladolid in 1549, he was adopted by the Holy
Roman Emperor Maximillian II, who arranged his transportation to
Arriving in Genoa on November 12, 1551, Suleiman then began an
overland and river crossing to Austria via Milan, Cremona, Mantua
and Trent - reaching the latter on December 13, just as the Council
of Trent had finished its famous meeting. The procession entered
Vienna on March 6, 1552, where he was installed in the menagerie at
Schloss Kaiserebersdorf. Accounts of the celebratory reception the
elephant received on these journeys have survived - as has his
Measuring only 4½in (11cm) high, a Renaissance period bronze
thought to depict the imperial elephant sold for £50,000 at
Duke's of Dorset on September 29.
It was spotted in a display cabinet alongside many modern
collectables by Duke's valuer Matthew Denney whilst carrying out a
routine valuation at an unassuming bungalow in North Dorset. He was
able to make a direct comparison between this model and another
included in Tomasso Brothers Fine Art's Scultura
exhibition in New York, 2008.
There were slight differences in the casts, but it was quite
probably made around the time the beast made his momentous journey.
A German or Austrian rather than an Italian origin was
Contested well beyond its £2000-4000 estimate by three phone
bidders, the successful bidder was from Hong Kong.
And what happened to Suleiman? Following his epic journey he
died only 18 months after his arrival in Vienna - a sad moment
marked by a medal commissioned by Maximillian from the sculptor
Michael Fuchs. Presented to the mayor of the city, Suleiman's bones
were fashioned into a chair that still resides at the Kremsmünster
Abbey, while his skin was stuffed and survived for centuries in the
Wittlesbach royal collections.
Transferred to the Bavarian National Museum where it was
photographed in 1928, it survived the bombing raids on Munich in
1943, only to be sold after the War for shoe leather.
By Roland Arkell