The pontiff and the pachyderm

THE POPE'S ELEPHANT by Silvio Bedini Carcanet pounds 30
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Popes have always had odd hobbies. They have perhaps been a way of relaxing in a job that would otherwise be intolerable in its unending demands. John Paul II, for instance, is a budding playwright, turning out moral tales with unsubtle messages. Others have been trainspotters (the Vatican boasts its own model railway station) and star gazers. (It also has an observatory.) But the strangest passion of all was that of Pope Leo X for a white elephant.

Pets can be a solace for those leading lonely lives, and, unlike many popes in this high Renaissance period, Leo lived within the restrictions of his office. However, his obsession with Hanno, a gift from King Manuel I of Portugal in 1514, reached such epic proportions that it became a cause celebre among the Protestant reformers, and thus an elephant played a part in precipitating the Reformation.

That, at least, is the theory of Silvio Bedini, a historian from Washington's Smithsonian Institution. Using papers from the Vatican's own archives, he follows Hanno from his native India via Lisbon, and on to Rome as part of what amounted to a huge bribe to Leo X by the Portuguese king. There were cheetahs, monkeys and parrots, but it was the pale-skinned elephant that captured the imagination of the Romans and their bishop.

And the elephant rose to the occasion. When he was formally presented to the Pope, he filled his trunk with water from a nearby trough, sprayed a cascade into the air and genuflected with all the grace of an overweight altar-boy. Leo was entranced.

Special quarters were build alongside the Leonine Walls which surround the Vatican. Cardinals were appointed to look after the elephant's physical and spiritual welfare. Such was Hanno's fame that Leo's Medici relatives in Florence asked if the beast could grace their city with his presence. The Pope replied that "parental concern" forced him to say no, lest the journey be too arduous for his charge.

In spite of being lavished with every luxury - or perhaps because of it - Hanno died two years after his arrival. His loss plunged Leo into a grief assuaged only by commissioning artists like Raphael to record "his child" for posterity. Leo himself composed a mawkish tribute inscribed under Raphael's fresco of Hanno near the entrance to Saint Peter's. "That which Nature has stolen away," it concluded, "Raphael of Urbino with his art restored."

Bedini handles the narrative with clarity and a delicate appreciation of the humour of his material, but the real strength of his book lies in drawing out the broader influence of this colourful but of itself insignificant episode. The effect of Hanno's memory on art is examined, with elephants suddenly cropping up in the 16th century in the oddest of places from Nativity scenes to Domingo Sequeria's version of the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt.

But it was the Protestant reformers who made most capital out of the spectacle of a pope lavishing such love and attention on an elephant. The last will and testament of Hanno was widely circulated throughout Italy. In 29 separate legacies, Hanno bequeathed parts of his body to allegedly corrupt church officials - including his penis to Cardinal di Grassi, "so that he can become more active in the incarnation of bastards with the help of Madama Adriana".

The definitive account of an incident that continues, almost four centuries later, to attract writers and painters, The Pope's Elephant combines off-beat charm with historical rigour to such pleasing effect that it would even be suitable bedtime reading for a pontiff wanting to unwind.

Peter Stanford's investigation of the legend of Pope Joan will be published by Heinemann in the spring.