July 2005

Sumana Harihareswara

nonfiction

Clara's Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinocerous in Eighteenth-Century Europe by Glynis Ridley

This is the best book about the post-Renaissance European conception of the rhinoceros I have ever read. The other one, Lawrence Norfolk's novel The Pope's Rhinoceros, I found as confusing and now as unevenly remembered as a fever dream, though it did have some surpassingly fine gross-out scenes.

That book, this book tells me, was a fictionalization of a real event: In 1516 the king of Portugal sent a rhinoceros (the first in Europe since Roman times) as a gift to Pope Leo X. That poor animal fell off the ship en route to Rome and died an unrhinocerian death, leaving a trail of secondhand accounts but not many eyewitnesses.

Clara's Grand Tour is the story of the next, more successful rhinoceros to be brought to Europe. Raised in captivity in India, Clara was purchased by the entrepreneurial captain Van der Meer and exhibited across the Continent for nearly two decades. This alien, nearly mythological creature was advertised in ways we would find familiar today, and brought in every class of spectator.

At the time, public conception of the rhinoceros was derived entirely from ancient and Biblical references, and while these acted as Clara's credentials, once a person had paid their money, the flesh-and-blood spectacle supplanted all related images in the public mind--with a little help from the huge variety of souvenirs sold wherever Clara was exhibited.

Clara's Grand Tour reads like a historical monograph, putting a narrative on a skeleton of facts, every statement not known for sure chaperoned by a matronly qualifier. Clara and her handler's journey across Europe, and the attitudes and experiences of the people involved, are extrapolated from maps, a few contemporary accounts and commonsense analysis of what life was like at the time.

Much of the book is the exegesis of paintings, religious tracts and other representations of and discussions about Clara, picking out details into general themes: for instance, the way the Indian rhinoceros was depicted next to Turkish or Chinese or African or American natives, whatever aspect of the generic "foreign" seemed most likely to hook into the locals' minds.

Unfortunately, since the images themselves are not reproduced, the effect is as though you were walking around your house while listening to an audio tour of the Rijksmuseum. There are eight pages of illustrations, some of them very interesting, others only tangentially related to Clara, like the Grand Canal of Venice. Images like the broadsheets advertising Clara are not depicted, only described. For a book that stresses the visual impact of Clara and the ways she was represented, this is a serious omission.

One image that is reproduced is Dürer's famous and (once you really look at it) extremely inaccurate woodcut of a rhinoceros, based on secondhand reports of the animal that was to be the Pope's. Ridley puts forth an interesting argument that Dürer's rhinoceros is actually depicted as barded for a mock battle, tarted up in wholly unneccessary battle armor like a modern-day dog in an embarassing sweater. Why this image, instead of the much more accurate renditions of Clara, should remain our idea of the pre-photography pre-zoo rhinoceros is probably due solely to Dürer's craftsmanship.

I was afraid that Clara's Grand Tour, like some other histories with similarly narrow subjects, would blow its subject matter out of proportion and try to convince me that Clara's trip through Europe was the fulcrum on which all history turned. Fortunately the book's goals are modest. Clara revolutionized the European conception of the rhinoceros, but this was only possible because the people who paid to see her had never seen a rhinoceros before. Clara's story touches on the story of the history of religion and philosophy, but only in regards to theological arguments about Behemoth and Voltaire's spats with everyone less clever than him. The story recalls the Renaissance struggle to recapture ancient knowledge, but only in regards to the lost art of rhinoceros-handling.

Instead of a single too-broad thesis, we get many interesting details at the edges of Clara's journeys (the prisonlike porcelain factory of Messein, for instance, sticks in my mind). For nearly 20 years Clara was an exhibit, a celebrity affecting the lives of countless others in small ways. She fits into history as part of the story of celebrity and spectacle, and as a way to explore the stories of those she connected with. Clara's Grand Tour follows both threads without overreaching.

Clara's Grand Tour: Travels with a Rhinoceros in Eighteenth-Century Europe by Glynis Ridley
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 0871138832
222 pages