Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Silvio Bedini - The Pope's Elephant

“The Pope’s Elephant: an elephant's journey from deep in India to the heart of Rome” is a book I felt I had to read. After dwelling on the history of the giraffe brought to Napoleon’s court and the rhinoceros that toured Europe in the XVIII century, Silvio Bedini’s book felt almost mandatory. Not only is it about a previous historic episode featuring the travels of an elephant, it involves Portugal.

In 1513 the Portuguese king received an elephant from his appointed viceroy in India. Elephants were not exactly big news. Lisbon had seen the arrival of a few from Africa over the years of naval exploration of its coasts. From 1510 to 1514, some four Asian elephants also arrived to the capital. They were just the present for a man king Manuel wanted desperately to impress and who, though he had almost everything, happened not to have ever seen a live elephant – the newly enthroned pope Leo X.

The Portuguese King needed a papal approval for the sea exploration and colonization he was conducting – a church safe-conduct that declared to rival nations that Portugal had the church’s blessing in finding, occupying and converting new lands and people.

Pope Leo didn’t need much – a Medici by birth he was accustomed to the best of everything and as a pope found no dearth of sovereigns and princes trying to win his sympathy. He was however, a man beset by many physical problems, some painful, and his favorite analgesic seems to have been surrounding himself by everything beautiful and unexpected. The elephant Annone (as Bedini states Hanno, the popular name, is an anglicized version, which he nevertheless uses throughout the book) pleased him immensely. So much, that he had new quarters built for the animal right next to the papal palace so he could visit Annone every day.

Despite this being a subject that interests me, I almost didn’t finish “The Pope’s Elephant” (though I’m glad I kept going). Portuguese names and name-places misspellings are a dime a dozen and after a while it felt lazy. Whether this is more the author’s or editor’s fault I don’t know but in a work of historical research it just looks bad. The first chapters also had a lot of detail on Vatican protocol and practices which, personally, I found unnecessary. Then there are many sources: poems, description of paintings and so on which I felt took attention from the story at hand.

Unlike Glynys Ridley, Bedini doesn’t turn the animal into a protagonist. I guess if the book has one it is pope Leo and even, then not so much. The sort of historical research that reads like a novel has to be written by someone with at least a bit of a novelist’s craft(iness?) Since Bedini is an historian specialized in renaissance scientific instruments, he is definitely not one to anthropomorphize or romanticize. Oh well.

It’s only in the fifth chapter (almost precisely in the middle of the book) that Bedini finally settles into a nice rhythm. Curious, that he should get into a groove in a chapter that firmly digresses from the main story (a few years later, king Manuel decided to send a rhinoceros to the pope, since the elephant had been such a success – however, close to the Italian shore, the boat sank, and although the body is supposed to have washed ashore and then been mounted, to this day the piece has not been found, though there are several bibliographical references to it being displayed). In later chapters Bedini will come back to the rhinoceros enigma several times – making a pair of the elephant and rhinoceros’ different fates in a very interesting way that made me wish that had been his starting point.

I guess there must be an almost incontrollable urge – when you’ve done a lot of research and some of it doesn’t lead you anywhere and some isn’t indispensable to tell your story – to cram it all in the final draft. But a lot of facts do not a good yarn make. It’s a shame really, because there are some great chapters and passages in “The Pope’s Elephant” but I think only the most interested in the period’s history will make it to the end.

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