In May 1515, the first rhinoceros since antiquity to reach Europe alive arrived in Lisbon, Portugal. The ruler of Gujarat, Sultan Muzafar II, presented the exotic beast to the governor of Portuguese India, Alfonso d’Albuquerque, who then sent it to King Manuel I. Later that year, the king sent the animal as a political gift to Pope Leo X. Sadly, the ship sank on its way to Italy, and the rhinoceros drowned.
Dürer and his contemporaries were fascinated with discoveries of the natural world, and as the rhinoceros made its journey, reports of the animal spread across Europe. Although he never saw the rhinoceros himself, Dürer based his woodcut of the animal on a description and a sketch that was sent to Nuremberg. The Latin text at the top of the print describes the rhinoceros to be the color of a speckled tortoise, covered in thick plates, and so well armed that even an elephant could not fend it off.
(Text courtesy of The Cleveland Museum of Art)