A Pope and an Elephant

Popum Aanayum Vathikanil…….

As you may have noticed from previous posts, I am quite partial to elephant stories like most Malayalees and I do like the pachyderm a lot. Earlier I wrote about Murugan in Amsterdam, Suleiman in Vienna and this time it is about an elephant that lived in the Vatican. It is a story detailing the attachment between a fun loving Pope Leo X and his baby white elephant which hailed from Cochin. The story is fun, it is sad, and is a story of the times, with politics, satire, romance and all kinds of stuff attached to it. It even has three greats hovering on the fences, the genius Leonardo da Vinci, another stalwart Michelangelo and the great artist Raphael, as well as a couple of Malayalees, perhaps the first residents in the Vatican area. The time period of this story is 1509-1516 and Vatican did not exist then, it was just the sanctified area of the Holy See, the apostle palace and the Belvedere.

First some perspective - The Columbus discovery of western lands in 1492 started a new argument between the Spaniards and the Portuguese, both jockeying for control over new lands discovered by their enterprising voyagers. It was finally on May 4, 1493, at the urging of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, that Pope Alexander VI issued a bull clarifying the rights. To settle this feud, the Papal bull of 1493 divided the world commercially between these two nations, leaving most the Americas to Spain and giving Portugal what is now Brazil and all lands in Africa and Asia. Alexander's papal bull was ironically a continuation of what is now called the Doctrine of Discovery and was formally known as Inter Caetera. Following this, many a voyager set his sights to the western shores of India and Malabar and the first to find success is as you know, Vasco de Gama in 1498. He came and went, and then it was the turn of Cabral and many others. All their stories can be read at my historic alleys site. The Portuguese were ensconced in Malabar, but soon enough, Magellan discovered Mallacca and a question arose about the territorial rights. Would it come under the purview of the Spaniards or the Portuguese? A new quarrel erupted and some clarity was needed from a higher authority, from whom else, but the pope? To ensure that the pope sided with the Portuguese, King Manuel of Portugal put together a careful strategy of first dazzling and then effectively bribing the incumbent pope, with exotic gifts from the orient.

As you would have expected, the story starts in Cochin in 1509/1510. Two elephants had been procured, one a mature elephant – the gift from the Cochin king and the other a baby procured from somebody else, perhaps the lord of Nilambur, for 101 cruzados. The young elephant was specially trained to perform tricks and fed very well, with intent to make it a worthy gift. Special orders were passed about its treatment and feed and two Nairs were put in charge to ensure that. The Nairs were to accompany the two elephants on separate voyages to Lisbon and not only hand them over to new owners in Lisbon, but also remain there and train them properly before seeking a return to Malabar. Food of one para rice plus butter as well as daily oil anointation was ordered by Albuquerque for the baby elephant.

The story now shifts to Rome, the Holy See, in the year 1513, where a youthful 38 year old pope Giovanni de' Medici had just been elected to the papacy. Renamed Leo X, the pope was quite fat, shiny, possessed an effeminate countenance and had weak eyes which protruded from under a close-fitting cap. His unwieldy body was supported by thin legs, he had rheumy eyes and constantly used a magnifying lens to read, had sluggish movements and perspired heavily, to the distress of the bystanders. But as they noted, when he laughed or spoke, the unpleasant impression vanished. They also say he had an agreeable voice, knew how to express himself with elegance and vivacity, and his manner was easy and gracious. "Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us", he is said to have remarked after his election. He went on to become so infamous for wasting money, that a contemporary said, "Leo has eaten up three pontificates, the treasury of Julius II, the revenues of his own pontificate, and those of his successor. A report of the Venetian ambassador Marino Giorgi in March 1517 indicates some of his predominant characteristics: "The pope is a good-natured and extremely free-hearted man ……..To the virtues of liberality, charity and clemency he added the Machiavellian qualities of falsehood and shrewdness, so highly esteemed by the princes of his time.

Back in 1509 or so, it was L Varthema who wrote a lucid description of the Indian elephant, rousing curiosity in the hearts of the placid Roman commoner, for oxen and horses were the biggest beasts they had come across. It was after this that King Manuel started collecting ‘elephants of state’, following examples of the Zamorin and the Cochin king and had about five already in his stables, as this story starts. When the new elephants reached him in 1511, Manuel was happy that he had found a solution to his vexing problem about Malacca. For a while he played around with the new elephant as a portrait testifies to. But this gift was meant for the new Pope, who had a history of fondness towards animals, for in fact, his grandfather had his own menagerie. The gift that Manuel picked for Leo X was thus well chosen, the grey white albino baby elephant that could by now perform tricks too. The decision made was to send not only the elephant but also many other Indian animals (goats, parrots, horses and rare dogs) and other items of great value together with a group of emissaries headed by Tristao da Cunha and his sons. They thus started out on a long voyage from Lisbon to the Italian shores. But to get all of these people and the animals to the Vatican gates in Rome did not prove to be that easy, for an apparent romantic interlude interrupted the proceedings, though not directly involving the four year old elephant.

The keeper, trainer or mahout (in many books mentioned as Moor or Saracen– but more correctly the Nair
sent from Cochin) who had accompanied the animal to Lisbon had by then spent two years there. As was rumored at that time, he had fallen in love with a Portuguese girl and had no intention to leave for Rome, whether his new master was the Pope or not. He thought deep and hard and decided to seek help from the Elephant. So as the incredible story goes, he explained to the elephant about the miserable situation in Rome, the long and arduous voyage etc. and convinced the animal (who it seems understood Malayalam pretty well), that he should resist. As time came for the elephant to board a ship, it balked and refused to move forward. King Manuel was provided details of the situation by a helpful vassal and he decided to sort out the impasse himself (The first meeting between a Malayali and a Portuguese king??). Summoning the Indian, dire threats of imminent death were pronounced and a three day ultimatum was given.  The shivering man, fearing for his life, promptly forgot his lady love and had a hurried whispered conference with the elephant(promising that it and he will soon return to Lisbon), who then gingerly stepped onto the boat without further ado. And thus they left Portuguese shores, headed for Rome. So much for the love affair, or perhaps not, as you will find out if you read on (take the story with many a pinch of salt!!).

As reports put it - The huge luxurious embassy of one hundred and forty persons, headed by Cunha made its way through Alicante and Majorca, arriving at Rome outskirts in February 1514. They walked the streets of Rome on March 12, 1514 in an extravagant procession of exotic wildlife and wealth of the Indies, with many dressed in "Indian style". The elephant carried a platform of silver on its back, shaped as a castle containing a safe with royal gifts, including vests embroidered with pearls and gems, and coins of gold minted for the occasion. The pope received the procession in the Castel Sant'Angelo. The elephant knelt down three times in reverence and then, following a wave of his Indian mahout (keeper), aspired a bucket of water with his trunk and splashed it over the crowd and the Cardinals.

In that crowd, even greats like Leonardo Da Vinci perhaps stood, craning their necks, admiring the great animal. Medieval Rome had never seen an elephant (though ancient Rome had and Pliny mentions them). Da Vinci was later to write a couple of pages about the animal in his notebook, and it is guessed that he got the information about the pachyderm first hand through his friendship with the elephant’s Italian keeper Branconio (Raphael was also Branconio’s friend). The elephant however was not in good shape, it had sore feet walking on the hard and cobbled roads and having to endure muddy tracks and rain during the long trek from the port to the Vatican area. It had also got a name by then; the Italians called it Annone after hearing the mahout use the Malayalam terms ‘aana’ and ‘aane’… often. In later accounts this changed to Hanno, the Anglicized version of Annone. For the rest of the story, we will also call it Hanno. The pope was flabbergasted with these new sights, and of course immensely pleased. So much so, that he had new quarters built for Hanno right next to the papal palace so he could visit it every day. Two new jobs were created to take care of the elephant, one held by the papal chamberlain Branconio and the other by a man named Alfonso.  From pictures and accounts it is clear that the mahout and the Malabar keeper remained in the vicinity to take care of the animal.

The bribe had it effect, for Leo X soon passed more bulls to help the Portuguese hold on to Malacca and plunder it to their whims and fancies. Many a return gift was sent by Leo X to King Manuel and they remained good friends after the event. Cunha returned after a few months to Lisbon. The Malayali mahout and keeper did not (to ensure that the valuable elephant did not get upset, a single master principle was adopted).

Leo X soon became much attached to the pachyderm and participated in all sorts of events, with the exotic beast. But then trouble was afoot, the French were threatening the Romans and there were heretics to be kept at bay. The Turks who had overrun Istanbul were knocking on the doors. The pope who could hardly walk, and required two people just to raise him from his bed every day, found the next few months tiring and stressful to say the least and was terribly disturbed by the heresy and schism. Finances were also in a poor state and Leo had to borrow immense sums from all kinds of people and nations to keep the Vatican running. But we will not get to all of that, for it suffices to note that in the early years, he went often to his elephant to take his mind off weighty matters. Perhaps he learnt a word of two of Malayalam, though I would not bet on it, but they had a good time together and people have testified to seeing the rollicking twosome of the Pope and Hanno, in the stable. Two years passed by and the happy couple were talked about, written about (sometimes with contempt – a Pope who wasted his time with an animal) and painted or sketched for posterity. Hanno participated in many Roman festivals delighting crowds, sometimes becoming the reason for stampedes and so on, but never causing any harm to anybody. The Mahout in the meantime was perhaps a little worried that his newfound Portuguese girlfriend had found new suitors in Lisbon and pined after her, though it is only my guess. The Via dell Elefante was named so after Hanno and an inn appeared soon after, Casa del Liofante (though some others say the Liofonte family were famous innkeepers). In fact Clement 3’s horoscope has Hanno in the center.

Problems with France erupted and it appears that there was some heavy hearted plan by Leo to gift Hanno to the French monarch. By this time the talk about corruption in the Papal palaces was also rife. Leo X spent even more time on astrology for he was very superstitious, looking for answers, but without success.

It was an observant heretic that ultimately brought sorrow to those days of joy, and his name was Fra Bonaventura, a Franciscan priest of the 4th order. Bonaventura calling himself the angelic pope with about 20,000 recruits landed up in the region in May 1516 and went about making fiery sermons. In his speech at Rome, he proclaimed that he had excommunicated the reigning pope and his cardinals and urged people to join him and the King of France. He thundered that the pope, five cardinals, the elephant and its keeper would die by Sept 12th 1516. The pope already depressed with the death of his last relative his brother and suffering from malarial fever and various other ills such as multiple anal fistulae, became even more worried with the fear of imminent death. He quickly imprisoned the priest Bonaventura, much to everybody’s consternation. But the action proved right and the disturbances soon passed with the dissipation of Bonaventura’s followers.

Nevertheless, the clairvoyant’s prophecy proved somewhat right. Hanno soon took ill, suffering from severe breathing problems and acute constipation. But what was its illness? We do not know. Perhaps it was overfed wrong food (though accounts mention it was fed hay and vegetables and cost 100 ducats per month to maintain), perhaps it lost heart in life. It was found to be in great pain, lying in his pen listlessly and unable to move. It was getting ill for the first time and Leo X was doubly worried not only about the elephant but also about his certain death. Other people started to murmur and Leo had not a clue on what to do, for nobody had any idea how to treat a sick elephant (veterinary medicine did not exist in those days). He announced that no cost was to be spared and all efforts were made to treat it like a human. The pope spent all his time next to the ailing beast. Hanno’s urine was checked; they let its bad blood out as was the practice and decided to give it a purgative to relieve the constipation. But the dosage was a problem, what amount of laxative? Typically purgatives of those days were laced with gold and so a stronger dose was calculated. The dose given to Hanno had 500 grams (half a kilo) of gold. They hoped for the best.

What could have happened? The worst, for the elephant died soon after, on June 8th 1516. The whole of Rome was enveloped in grief and the pontiff inconsolable. Soon after, perhaps on the very same day, just as the monk had stated, the local keeper Alfonso also died. The seven year old elephant had spent all of two years, two months and twenty six days in Vatican. Rafael the painter was summoned, taken off his other tasks and asked to create a life sized mural befitting the animal. Many other monuments and facsimiles were ordered to be made and the pope himself wrote the first part of the epitaph for his beloved Hanno. In the meantime to make matters worse, two of the five cardinals named by Bonaventura also died.

Now it is time to get to know another person who got embroiled in the Hanno affair. Perhaps you have not yet read a fine book called 48 laws of power by Robert Greene, and it is something to look at. He introduces the satirist Pietro Aretino and how this hitherto unknown writer’s aspirations came to fruition after he released a caustic work of satire with Hanno’s death as the plot, not sparing any of the big names of Rome. It was titled ‘the last will and testament of Hanno the elephant’ and targeted all the supposedly corrupt bigwigs of that period. It ended by stating that it would be wiser to be friendly with Aretino, otherwise more of such disastrous releases would be seen. I will narrate now you a few parts of the satirical will – just for effect

The Indian elephant, which Emmanuel, King of Portugal sent to Leo X - Pontiff Maximus, having lived in Rome approximately 4 years under the supervision of Zuan batista Aquilan (Barnconio) has become ill either from the varying temperature and air of Rome, or as a result of the avarice of the said Zuan Batista, and considering that no matter how great our prudence, nothing more is certain than death, the elephant inasmuch as he is infirm in body has deposed on me various legacies and last wishes…

You are to give my hide to Leo, supreme pontiff, in order that he can stretch it over an elephant constructed of wood of my size, so that at least my shape can be recognized until the arrival of another new elephant to take my place………….

My testi$%^s you are to give to the most reverend cardinal of Senegaia (known for his addiction to the pleasures of flesh) so that he will become more fruitful in his progeny and in the merry procreation of the antichrist with the Rev Julia of the nuns of the monastery of St Catherine….
You are to give my member (pe#$s) to cardinal de Grassi (who fathered several children with Adriana de Scottis of Bologna) so that he can become more active in the incarnation of more bastards with Adriane of Bologna. …

And so on….

Aretino was soon to be titled the ‘scourge of the princes’. The amused pope Leo X who had recovered by then and gotten back to playing chess, cards and concentrating on music appreciation, drafted Aretino to papal service according to some, but others explain that he had to flee Rome and head to Venice, the seat of all vices, where he became a friend of Titan, Michelangelo’s rival (In fact he even tried to threaten and blackmail Michelangelo before he left).

Greene using Aretino’s example illustrates his principle which is – if you are small and obscure like David, find the biggest Goliath to attack. The larger the target, the more the attention you gain. The bolder the attack, the more you stand out.

But this brings us to the end of this elephantine tale. Raphael the person who immortalized Hanno lived on for another 4 years, Michelangelo who got tangentially involved in the Hanno fountain project lived to a ripe old age, until 1564, the caustic bard Aretino until 1556, while the genius Da Vinci died in 1519. King Manuel and Leo X went on to live another five years until 1521 (he died of an apparent cold and pneumonia after a hunting trip). Da Vinci was the biggest loser, for though he sauntered around the Vatican during this very period when Leo and Hanno frolicked in the Holy See courtyards, could never succeed in meeting Leo X and getting a papal patronage, unlike Raphael, much to his disappointment.

The Portuguese of course continued their subjugation of Malabar, Goa and other west coast ports of India as well as Malacca and enriched themselves. Whatever happened to the Malabar keeper and the mahout? Nothing is known about them. Did the mahout go back to Lisbon and find his girlfriend? I do not know. Did he go back home to Malabar? I do not know that either. Some learned grey haired people say that if elephants feel that they can never go back home, they lose heart and die where they are. Perhaps Hanno lost heart knowing that he will never get back to Nilambur or wherever he came from. But one thing I have read is that elephants prefer to go back home when death nears.

So was Hanno a cause for the reformation of the church? The late Silvio A Bedini, the author of the book
‘The pope’s elephant’ which I read, extracts of which I used for this article (with grateful acknowledgement and lot of thanks) thinks so. Why was that? Because Leo’s obsession with Hanno, reached such epic proportions that it became a cause celebre among the Protestant reformers, and thus this baby elephant played a part in precipitating the Reformation of the church.

Hanno was soon forgotten and Romans had other things to amuse them. Vatican was formally created in 1929. Many of the medieval treasures had however been carted away by the French and lost forever. The Hanno epitaph and the fresco were destroyed by Pius V who renovated the Papal palace.

But once again, albeit briefly, Hanno peeped out from obscurity and this was in 1962 when some digging work to improve the air-conditioning ducts were undertaken at the Vatican and elephant teeth were discovered. They belonged to our Hanno. It was also discovered that the two tusks at the St Peter’s basilica belonged to the same elephant. The rest of Hanno is perhaps still under the belvedere and hopefully somebody will give the young elephant a proper burial some day!!

That my friends, was thus the real life story of Hanno the Malabar elephant and Leo X the Pope.

The pope’s elephant - Silvio A Bedini
Asia and the making of Europe Vol2, Book1 – Donald F Lach
48 laws of power – Robert Greene

Those interested in elephants may read some of my earlier blogs listed below

Note: The sketches of Hanno do not show its tusks or if they do, show very small tusks- It is believed that the pope wanted to ensure that it was always projected as a gentle beast and so it was made to look benign.


Happy Kitten said...

That was some tale!

Reading this history makes one tremble..religion easily transforms into power..reforms come and go..but nothing changes...

Aana became Hanno...

Maddy said...

Thanks HK..
those days were tough in that part of the world, with crusades, inqusitions, heresey and all kinds of issues followed up by the renaisance movements..The little elephant became a toy and eventually perished amongst the people battling larger worldy issues...

'mohan'raagam said...

Very interesting.. Thanks..
I have mentioned this toy in my Telugu biography of Da Vinci, publihsed in last March. I am requesting you, If there is any material about Hanna please provide me...
P Mohan


'mohan'raagam said...


'mohan'raagam said...

Very interesting.. Thanks..
I have mentioned this toy in my Telugu biography of Da Vinci, publihsed in last March. I am requesting you, If there is any material about Hanna please provide me...
P Mohan


Maddy said...

thanks Mohan..
please see under references.
all those books have material on hanno..

Unknown said...

Great Blog, Maddy, truly enjoyed it. regards, Frank.

La ku uma said...

Did the elephant have ॐ painted on its forehead? It will be of immense help
to find out many other aspects! Madagondapalli