Editor's LetterIssue 21

In 1515 the first rhinoceros to be seen in Europe since the fall of the Roman Empire arrived in Lisbon. In early 1516, however, it perished in a shipwreck off the coast of Italy, in transit after being dispatched by the King of Portugal to Pope Leo X as a gift. But this did not stop Albrecht Dürer, the German painter and printmaker, from making a woodcut of the animal, despite never having seen it himself, and having only an anonymous drawing someone had showed him to go by. Inexperience is never seen as an impediment to practice here at the Soho Revue, but in this instance it rather misfired, and Dürer plunged Europe into four hundred years of darkness Rhinocerotidae.

For Dürer’s rhinoceros, you see, had a number of features not possessed by the actual Indian rhinoceros – features which were then stubbornly perpetuated in the drawing manuals, anatomical textbooks, zoological treatises, pictures, paintings and sculptures made of the Indian rhinoceros across Europe for the next four centuries, until as late, in some instances, as the end of the nine­teenth. Dürer’s rhinoceros included, for example, armour plating covering the body; a second, smaller horn on the back of its neck; feet like Barney the dinosaur; and a face that looks like the hoary inside of an oyster shell.

It was not a success. I am sometimes put in mind of it when, in moments when thought is absent, I order a cappuccino in Paris. What arrives suggests the creation of a waiter who once met someone in a bar who had seen a cappuccino, and did a drawing of it. Drunk. For French cappuccini, you see, tend more closely to resemble those ‘educational’ home volcano kits for children.

Thus even the Renaissance brought darkness over the land; wealth and patronage brought the animal object for examination; the same forces then annihilated it; the genius of Dürer marred its memory, for the inventions of Gutenberg to propagate. But it did little harm. Unlike, perhaps, those directly resistant to the artistic Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries, amongst whose ignoble ranks appears Giovanni dal Ponte, a Florentine painter who, as Dr Jaspreet Singh Boparai decides following the first exhibition dedicated to his work, failed to innovate or adapt as Masaccio and his ilk hit the scene.

Revolution of a different kind is at the heart – both artistic and political – of the Royal Academy’s new exhibition of 20th century Russian art, and though – I am assured – it features no rhino­ceroses, it made our reviewer’s companion horny. Hayley Daen managed to reach a similar state of zoological fervour in her review of the Soho restaurant Kricket, which focussed on the staff more than the food, and J L Blarney masterfully considers another artistic animal who apes: the lyrebird, a savant-like producer of artistic replicas in New York.

Oddly enough, rhinoceroses are amongst the very first things that were ever drawn in Europe…or anywhere else. In the cave paintings at Chauvet rhinoceroses appear in murals around 30,000 years old. But the very oldest pictures – which were found not long ago in the Dordogne – show mammoths and aurochs, or wild cows. They may not be rhinoceroses and we may never have seen one, or even a cave painting, but we still wrote about it, and you herd it here first.