On the morning of 3 June 1515, Lisbon awoke with an unusual excitement. A public combat between an elephant and a rhinoceros was to take place that very day, just outside the Ribeira Palace, where today the Praça do Comércio (Terreiro do Paço) is located.
King Manuel I had just received an Indian rhinoceros as a gift from Sultan Muzafar II, by way of the Viceroy and Governor of Portuguese India, Afonso de Albuquerque. After a four-month sea voyage, the rhinoceros had finally arrived in Lisbon, then the thriving capital of a maritime empire in full expansionist glory. Regarded in Europe as a mythical beast, on the same level as the unicorn, this was to be the first rhinoceros to be seen here since the third century and its arrival caused a huge sensation.
In a demonstration of extravagant brilliance typical of the time, King Manuel I decided to test the legendary fierceness of the rhinoceros by arranging a fight between it and one of the elephants kept in his collection of exotic animals, which used to be paraded through Lisbon during royal processions.
According to contemporary accounts, the elephant, which was also Indian, was young and felt immediately intimidated, both by the powerful rhinoceros and the noisy crowd who awaited the clash euphorically. As soon as it saw the rhinoceros charging, it panicked and fled. After huge expectations, the grand fight ended thus in a fiasco but the legend lived on to this day.
The rhinoceros would later be sent to Rome as a gift to Pope Leo X, having then shipwrecked and drowned in the Mediterranean, and would only reach its destination after having been stuffed. Its figure would nonetheless be immortalised by Albrecht Dürer in the iconic woodcut he produced from drawings and accounts that reached him. The elephant, in contrast, was not given the same prominence in history.
It is precisely this encounter – which was as unusual as it was exotic, as poetic as it was tragic – that Teresa Esgaio has challenged herself to reproduce at Underdogs Art Store in the form of a visual enactment in progress. Based on a set of images of elephants and rhinoceroses that she gathered during the research phase, the artist intends to carry out here a detailed, delicate work with recourse to dry pastel and graphite powder, reproducing the intricate textures and individual nuances of each animal with the aim of creating an encounter between two life-size reproductions which, section by section, will take shape on the wall over the next three months.