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The Story of Süleyman. Celebrity Elephants and Other Exotica in Renaissance Portugal


Süleyman's Journey

This is the incredible story of a brave, small elephant, Süleyman, and his decade-long passage by land and sea from the jungles of Ceylon to Portugal, Spain and ultimately to Austria. It was an epic journey, punctuated by a pirate attack off the coast of France, a trek across the Alps, and a celebrated river barge voyage. By the time this pachyderm finally reached Vienna on May 7, 1552, it had covered almost 15,000 kilometers (about 9,300 miles) on its journey from Asia and across Europe.

In 1542, a decade earlier, King John III of Portugal and his wife, Catherine of Austria, had received the elephant as a diplomatic gift from the King of Kotte in Ceylon (part of their newly established Asian empire). Seven years later, in 1549, they gave the young bull to their five-year-old grandson, Prince Carlos of Spain, to ease his isolation and loneliness.

This highly unusual gift delighted the young prince, but caused great consternation at the Spanish court, where officials had no clue as to how to care for the beast. Staggering expenses, coupled with the cold climate of northern Castile, determined the elephant's future path. The prince's aunt, Maria of Austria, and her husband, Emperor Maximilian II, rescued the elephant and took it with them when they departed for Vienna in 1551.

Everywhere Süleyman travelled, the pachyderm became an instant sensation, and his image was captured by contemporary artists in a surprisingly complete pictorial history. Later dubbed Süleyman, this celebrity elephant was the prized pet of a succession of royal owners: Catherine of Austria, Queen of Portugal, Prince Carlos of Spain, and finally Emperor Maximilian II of Austria

As the star of the Empress Maria and Emperor Maximilian II's triumphant return to Vienna, the pachyderm became the star of the Imperial menagerie. Süleyman and another elephant that arrived in Vienna in 1563 were true, if unlikely, celebrities of Renaissance Europe. This volume chronicles the fascinating history of these pachyderm pop stars and their singular roles as symbols of dynastic power.

The Story of Süleyman tells this fascinating tale, providing a glimpse into the daily lives of Renaissance royals in the 1500s. It explores their insatiable appetite for imported animals and merchandise, the role their exotic pets played as beloved companions, the robust commercial market that emerged to support their extravagance, and the symbolic significance of their opulent collections. The story comes to life with images (several never before published) by such early Renaissance luminaries as Albrecht Dürer, Giuseppe Arcimboldo, Anthonis Mor, and Giulio Romano.