There are good reasons to state that Alberto Durero reinvented humankind’s view of animals.
Alberto Durero belongs to the first generation of artists since the Middle Ages that decided to approach animals to observe them and portray them in a realistic way. Each one of Durero’s animals is a singular character, an individual. His beetles, owls, lions, macaws, storks, squirrels and dogs are portraits from a careful and detailed study.
Although in his era there was already greater knowledge of animals from Asia and Africa, and many had already been taken to Europe, it was still much easier to know about animals through descriptions or illustrations. Often existing animals co-existed in the imagination with fantastical ones, such as unicorns and mermaids, and sometimes those and others were mixed together.
Of the many animals that Durero drew, the most popular is perhaps the least realistic. Durero never saw a rhinoceros, for example. His famous drawing is based on a description by a Portuguese artist who saw one in an exhibition in Lisbon. Durero’s rhinoceros is surprising for being very similar to a real rhinoceros and at the same time a kind of fantastical beast. It is covered with something similar to armor, made from a material that resembles stone, and has a horn on its back that could be from an analogy with the unicorn. Its feet are covered with reptilian scales, but the whole animal itself resembles a sea monster. The drawing of the rhinoceros had such an impact that for a long time it was reproduced as a faithful image and became the undisputed model for all rhinoceroses. It was copied and printed in drawings, in bronze, marble, and on doors and on porcelain, and it continued to be perceived as a realistic image until the end of the 18th century.
Durero’s fascination for animals was such that, close to the end of his life he heard that somewhere on the Dutch coast a whale had been beached and he decided to embark and go and see it. During the journey he caught malaria, from which he never recovered and which led to his death.
Chesterton said that when children read about enchanted trees they never look at normal trees in the same way again. Durero’s representations reinvented the way in which humans saw animals. In his drawings, respect and admiration are palpable. And the drawings are contagious. Which is why rhinoceroses will never be the same since Durero.
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