In 1515 a live rhino appeared in Lisbon, a feat made possible thanks to the newly discovered sea route to India. It was the first rhino seen in Europe since at least Roman times, and it caused, to say the least, quite a stir. What does this rhino have to do with Belém Tower?
Believe or not, the rhino is there, in the tower itself; you can just make it out in the photo below.
In the late 1400s King João II of Portugal came to the conclusion that his capital, Lisbon, was vulnerable to attack. The existing defensive structures on the Tagus River were insufficient, he believed. And it was a shortcoming that could only be overcome by erecting a 30-metre tall, cannon-filled tower atop a small basalt outcrop that lay in the river a few hundred metres west of Jerónimos Monastery.
King João II died in 1495 before the tower could be built. His successor, King Manuel I, was a fan of the idea. He ordered the tower’s construction in 1514; by 1519 it was complete.
Belém Tower was ornamented in Manueline style (also known as Portuguese late Gothic) an architectural style known for its use of nautical themes – including columns and decorative features carved to appear like twisted strands of rope – as well as for incorporating finds, discoveries, and motifs from lands newly discovered by Portuguese explorers.
The Age of Discovery
Belém Tower was constructed in the midst of the Age of Discovery – the era in which various European powers began to explore the world’s oceans.
Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama completed the first ocean voyage from Europe to South Asia in 1498, thus opening the sea route to India. Within 16 years a diplomatic gift consisting of one live Indian rhino – given to the governor of Portuguese India, Afonso de Albuquerque – was travelling along that route on its way back to Portugal.
The rhino survived the 120-day sea journey to Lisbon – a remarkable feat in itself – and on the 20th of May, 1515, it was unloaded onto the docks next to Belém Tower – which was still under construction at the time.
Europeans living in 1515 knew of the creature known as the rhinoceros – the Romans had written of them a millennia and a half earlier – but, as no rhinos had been seen or heard of since, the animal had come to be regarded as a mythological beast, in the same boat as unicorns and centaurs. The appearance of a living rhino, thus, was met with much astonishment and fanfare.
German printmaker, Albrecht Dürer, created a famous woodcut print of the rhino in 1515. The drawing – known as Dürer’s Rhinoceros – gained notoriety due to its many humorous inaccuracies, including its tank-like, riveted armour, its scaled legs, and the unicorn horn – in addition to the rhino’s usual horns – that decorated its neck.
King Manuel kept the rhino in his menagerie for a total of 6 months – at one point a fight was staged between the rhino and an elephant – before deciding to on-gift the animal to Pope Leo X. The ship the rhino was travelling on sank off the coast of Italy though, and the animal – shackled to the deck and thus unable to swim – drowned.
But the rhino lives on in the ornamentation of Belém Tower.
If you look closely at the corbels beneath the lowermost row of turrets, you’ll spot a zoomorphic carving of that remarkable, continent-crossing rhino of 1515.
Practical information and how to get to Belém Tower:
The neighbourhood of Belém lies 6 km west of Lisbon city centre. There are frequent buses and trams running between the two.
Read more on Belém Tower in the UNESCO World Heritage listing.