The Revolutionary Rhino of Venice


In 1751, the Venetian painter, Pietro Longhi, created one of his most unusual works: a painting of fashionable spectators gawking at a rhinoceros. In an age before zoos (or at least humane ones), Europeans had little opportunity to see the wondrous diversity of biological life, relying instead of fanciful books by unreliable travelers. So you can imagine their delight to see a real Indian rhino in the flesh, part of a tour that was sweeping across Europe. The rhinoceros in question made quite a footnote in history: her name was Clara, captured as an infant by a Dutch captain in 1738. He took care of her for a time, but eventually sold her to someone with an entrepreneurial eye. Clara made the grand tour of Europe, spending several months in all the major capitals. By the time she made it to Venice, Clara was nearing the end of her life, though her final stop would be in England, where she died in 1758. 

For the history alone, Longhi’s portrait of Clara, entitled Ca’Rezzonico, would be worth examining. Yet unlike some contemporary engravings or sketches of Clara, Longhi did more than simply record her existence. The spectacle of a living rhinoceros inspired Longhi to make unflattering comparisons to his own society, a ritualistic world of lace and masks. As many playwrights realized, it’s difficult to simply point out society’s flaws and prescribe a moral remedy; the audience would fall asleep. Instead, writers such as Congreve, Wycherley, and Sheridan would write engaging, witty plays following the exploits of high society characters, and slowly, scene by scene, reveal the seedy moral underbelly of the modern world. An uncritical observer could miss the point entirely, savoring the jokes and saucy situations. Anyone else, however, would laugh until his or her likeness became apparent in the ‘mirror’ on-stage.

Longhi’s paintings are no exception. They are always witty, polished pictures from Venetian society: men and women at a masked ball, an important countess at her toilette, and of course, the unique portrait of Clara. But of course, Clara is not the actual focus of the painting: though she commands center stage, the light of the painting falls squarely on the men and women who have paid to see her. On first blush we see a pretty noblewoman, her white, doll-like face framed by a black hat and hood, her body clothed by a sheer black cloak over a white gown trimmed with yellow sleeves. A closed fan rests in her gloved fingers, and is looking out eagerly at the viewer—but not at Clara. She seems naive, eager of being seen, as if this is her first foray into society and is thrilled by all the attention.

Flanking her on both sides—rather too closely—are men in Carnival masks, one clearly gazing at her neck and shoulders, while the other seems to be moving behind, his eyes raised to observe her hat or something just out of the frame. Clearly they have not come to see Clara. On the far right, another masked gentleman is learning over the wooden partition to get a closer look at the beast. The strangest—and most eye-catching—person is a man, unmasked, who is holding both arms aloft just to her left. One hand is pointing to Clara, while in the other, he clutches what looks like a fishing rod and a horn, perhaps Clara’s horn, which is absent in the image (according to history, the horn came off in Rome, possibly to protect the onlookers). Why would a mere spectator have Clara’s horn—and make such a show of it?

In the background, we have three more figures: another gentlewoman, her entire face covered by a black mask, though otherwise dressed in pastoral blues, whites, and pinks. On one side of her is a young girl, perhaps her daughter, dressed in the same colors, though given her age she is unmasked; on the other is an older woman, probably a servant, as her head is covered by a long green cloak which drapes down to cover her body. The woman’s face expresses a shade of bored melancholy, and she seems to be more interested in the man with the horn than the animal below. Additionally, the group seems to be in motion: all are standing, and they seem to have been caught ‘checking things out,’ but with no intention of staying.

And what of Clara herself? Longhi makes her the largest character in the painting, spending considerable detail on her tough yet gleaming hide. The animal is eating, completely oblivious to the spectators above, and amusingly, has recently relieved herself on the floor. Yet despite this, Clara seems like the most vital creature in the painting. While the various spectators are full of color and witty detail, you could almost mistake them for wallpaper. Truthfully, none of Longhi’s characters are truly realistic, existing more as commedia dell’arte characters, types rather than individuals. Yet the strong detail of Clara stands out in striking relief, as if she’s been given an identity denied the other characters, most of whom are hiding their true characters under capes and masks.

And maybe that’s the point: Clara is naked, without anything to hide behind, and is apparently quite comfortable being exactly who she is—even to the point of defecating in public. John Berger in his famous book, Ways of Seeing, writes that “To be naked is to be oneself. To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself…Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display…Nudity is a form of dress” (54). While Clara is technically on display, she is clearly herself, and feels no shame or male gaze upon her (indeed, only one man is even looking at her). She is exactly who she is, which the women in the stands, covered up from head to toe, are clearly not. They remain ‘naked,’ there to be ogled by their male companions and those viewing the painting. The young woman in the center of the painting is arguably ‘nude’: she is on display and seems to know it, as her artificial stance attests. There is nothing natural about her (the doll-like face might suggest this, too), and the more we look at her, the more we feel that she is trying to enact a role. Perhaps she is a newly married woman who is enjoying the freedom of walking about town with this new persona, attracting the attention of men who can flirt with her without the pressure of become suitors.

Which brings us back to the horn. Why would this random gentleman be waving it about, and who gave it to him? Possibly he’s one of the animal’s handlers, as he seems to be more modestly dressed than his companions. But he also seems curiously theatrical, with his extended finger pointing out Clara, as if to say “I have the beast’s horn!” Yet no one in the 18th century could miss the possible pun here on horn: a man who sleeps with another man’s wife makes him a cuckold, or in Italian, cornuto (“having horns”). Since he’s sitting so close to the woman and her admirers, the implication seems to be that someone is about to give her husband ‘horns.’ Read in this light, perhaps the extended finger is less an identification than a question: to which animal does the horn belong? Or, which of the two is more of an animal: the one who shits in public or behind closed doors?

One final detail is the background itself: the drab, dusty surroundings of Clara’s pen contrast sharply with the starched white and blacks of the spectators. They seem to inhabit a completely different world, and are merely ‘slumming’ in the alleyways of society. This is certainly true of the noblewoman in the background, whose entire face is covered lest she reveals her identity and interest. And while the pen of a rhinoceros would never be a palace, we can’t help wondering if the background is another ‘horn’: that is, do the colors and dirt allow Longhi to make an ironic comment about his society? As much as they try to lift themselves above the base materials of life, they only hide it under layers and layers of frippery. Yet their motives remain the same as the baser-born: money simply makes them act with greater secrecy and subterfuge. This might be why the horn-handler has such drab clothing, almost blending into the background itself. He alone sees the truth and can point out the difference between masks and horns. His expression seems a little put-out as well, as if saying “if all you see here is a rhinoceros, perhaps you should take off your own mask!”

However we view it, Longhi’s painting remains a charming portrait of a unique cultural encounter in 18th century Venice. Clara was a remarkable animal, her story luckily saved from the ages and preserved in a portrait. The people themselves, if they ever existed, remain unknown and forgotten. That alone is worth noting: over two hundred years later, a captive rhinoceros speaks more to our humanity than a group of preening aristocrats. So, too, does the identity of the painter who painted them. How surprised they would have been, these aristocrats, to realize they are a mere footnote—an embellishment—to Longhi’s painting of Clara. No doubt the Margrave of Brandenburg would be just as surprised to find his name appended to Bach’s world-famous Brandenburg Concertos as an afterthought. The world was changing in the 18th century, with the rise of a middle class that also consumed and supported art. Art no longer had to flatter the elite or ask for their favor. Soon a Mozart would demand to be seated at the table with his employers, and a Beethoven would insist that these same employers observe silence while he played the piano. In her own quiet way, Clara is just as revolutionary, her indifference to nobility foreshadowing the French Revolution close at hand. 

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