Death in the Vatican

The Story of a Pope and His Elephant

The Vatican is no stranger to scandal. And one shameful legend in particular epitomizes the religious, political, and economic realities of a 16th-century papacy. Hilary Bockham, expert guide with Context Travel, tells the twisted tale of Leo X and Hanno the elephant.

What do you give the man who has everything? And when I say “everything,” I mean as much as any Western man in the early 1500s could possibly imagine.

I’m referring to Pope Leo X.

In 1513, on becoming pope, Leo was seen rubbing his hands together saying, “God hath given us the papacy. Let us enjoy it.” And he did. Big time. Three facts for context: eating parrots’ tongues was a thing in those days, the pope romped through a seventh of the Vatican treasury in his first papal celebration alone, and he was so overweight that it took two strong men to get him off his bed each morning.

So the King of Portugal needed to think of a pretty special gift if he were to gain favor with this eccentric, the most powerful man in the Christian world. After all, this was a guy slinging gold plates out of windows.

“Hey!” said somebody. “I’ve got a great idea! Why not send him an elephant?”

Pope Leo X
Depictions of the Portuguese King (left) and Pope Leo X (right).

Why not indeed? Such an animal hadn’t been seen in Rome for literally centuries, and the pope was putting a bit of a menagerie together, so he was bound to be entranced. And entranced he was.

It was a long and arduous trip for the rather small, pale grey elephant named Hanno.

When an elephant digs in his feet in “elephants don’t do boats” style, it’s a tough situation. It took three days to get him onto the boat. Once on, storms had them docking in Tuscany and onto a long, overland trek to Rome. People along the way were so crazy to get a look at Hanno they would destroy anything in their path. Sometimes the only way to abate the destruction was to park the elephant in a chilly piazza all night so that everybody could get a close look.

In Rome, Pope Leo was immediately captivated. Hanno was trained to kneel in his presence and his habit of trumpeting and spraying the delighted Pope with water was, they said, wonderful to see. From 1514 on, they lived happily together.

The honeymoon lasted two years.

A sketch of Hanno and a rider, from 1514
A sketch of Hanno and a rider, from 1514 by Raffaello

It’s important for us to remember that in those days the situation of the ordinary family was horrendous. Whereas in ancient Rome around 38 million gallons of fresh water came crashing into the city every day, by the 1500s — as the rich became even richer — there was only one place where the city’s 55,000 people could access fresh water for free. Ordinary people were forced to take their water from the River Tiber, the same place where everybody piled their rubbish and drained their sewage. Disease was rife. And you can imagine what that did for child mortality.

Incidentally, there wasn’t much green stuff around for elephants to eat, so Hanno’s diet was pretty heavy on the carbs. One day, he lay down with a huge, painful belly. His affliction was soon clear: constipation.

The Pope, used to solving his problems with gold, was conditioned to believe it could fix everything. So, not completely out of line with medical practice at that time, the elephant’s medicine was laced with gold. A lot of gold. Perhaps predictably, poor little Hanno died of gold-aggravated constipation.

 

Portrait of Leo X,
“Portrait of Leo X,” by Raphael.

The Pope was inconsolable, Hanno was buried with pomp and ceremony in the Vatican, Raphael frescoed a plaque, poems and political satire were written, and the whole story went the 16th-century version of viral.

And you can imagine how the story went over with parents who’d watched child after child die without even a cup of fresh water to soothe their fever. In contrast, the Pope had killed his baby with gold.

Martin Luther’s recent letter to Pope Leo X rang in their ears. “The Roman Church has become the most licentious den of thieves, the most shameless of all brothels, the kingdom of sin, death, and hell. It is so bad that even Antichrist himself, if he should come, could think of nothing to add to its wickedness.”

The heady days of the excesses of the Renaissance were heading towards an abrupt end, and everything was about to change forever. Some might say that Hanno played a small, pale grey part in that.

Vatican
The Vatican

The best way to see the tribute to Pope Leo X’s elephant in the Vatican is with Context Travel’s Arte Vaticana tour, which explores the Vatican Museums’ many world-famous masterpieces. Context Travel offers expert-led cultural and historical walking tours and activities for travelers who love to learn, in over 50 cities around the world. Tablet Plus members receive exclusive discounts on private tours from Context.

Read about The Bounty Beneath the Streets of Rome, also from a Context Travel expert.

Hilary Bockham is an expert in art, literature, and fashion living in Rome. She began her career as an art teacher in England before running her own Exhibition Services company for art galleries and museums throughout Britain. She is also an expert guide with Context Travel.

 
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