Some stories, according to a journalistic cliché, write themselves. The story of the watchmaker and the two rhinos is one of them.
That story begins in 1515, when a rhino, his name is Ganda, arrives at the port of Lisbon. In fact, it begins the year before when Sultan Muzafar II of Camby (Gujarat) presents the rhino to the Portuguese Viceroy Albuquerque in Goa. He then sends the animal on to King Manuel I of Lisbon, who shortly afterwards has the rhino shipped as a diplomatic gift to Pope Leo X in Rome – during the last voyage, the rhino drowns in a shipwreck off the Ligurian coast: Ganda, we hardly knew you†
The rhino has already made a big impression on the public. The last time a live armored rhino set foot on European soil was in Roman times. Those lucky enough to see the animal with their own eyes send colorful descriptions of it to distant acquaintances, sometimes accompanied by sketches. Such a letter falls into the hands of Albrecht Dürer – painter in Nuremberg, then the most recognized artist north of the Alps.
Of course set Master Albrecht directly to a woodcut of the famous rhino.
It was a marvelous beast that Dürer invented: half dragon, half real rhinoceros; a mythical beast with an armored body including rivets – if the riot police had had Dürer’s rhinos at their disposal in recent years, the ‘coffee drinkers’ on Museumplein would have stayed at home. His print shows some good misunderstandings. For example, Dürer kept the hook on the harness that was used to lift the rhino in Lisbon for another horn.
For centuries, Dürer’s rhinoceros was equally regarded as an accurate reproduction of the species, due to lack of comparative material, as well as for its artistic prowess. The 18th-century French watchmaker Jean-Joseph de Saint-Germain, who decorated one of his fireplace clocks with a gold-plated miniature rhino, also pursued it blindly.
I hit that clock on a circle Once upon a time, the pop-up museum in the villa between the Van Gogh Museum and the Moco in Amsterdam: a presentation of about eighty fire-gilded bronze Empire watches from the Parnassia Collection, an extraordinary collection. All the clocks on display date from the period 1750-1820, apparently a golden age for the French fireplace. In terms of design and finish, they are said to be the best that period has to offer. Even within this crème de la crème of French watches, the watch case’s music box with the rhino pops out.
By depicting the gilded bronze beast, Saint-Germain faithfully followed the law of the story passed on. Just as a third-hand story is just as much stronger than a used one, the French Rhino is as fabulous as Dürers. Next to one whole body armor and a horn on the back, the rhino can now also boast flower collars around the head and feather boots on the legs. An abundant rhino.
Around the same time as the completion of this watch, the continent fell under the spell of another rhino. This female rhino, named Clara, was exhibited throughout Europe for seventeen years. Because Clara was seen much longer than Ganda, her appearance was copied much more accurately, removing all sorts of prevalent misconceptions about the appearance of her species. With horns growing straight out of ridges, it was now over.
When Saint-Germain heard about this, he decided to make another watch-with-rhino. This rhino was modeled solely on images of Clara, resulting in a more understated design. This rhino pendulum is now also part of the Parnassia collection. You will soon find her in the Clara exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, if you have time.
Jean Joseph de Saint Germain (1719-1791)
The Ganda (1743-’49).
Once upon a time† Amsterdam.