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|Santa Maria sopra Minerva church
Pope Leo X was the last non-priest to be elected pope. Leo took holy orders at the age of seven and became a cardinal at age 14. Although he had been in the Curia since 1491, he had never been ordained when he was elected pope. Upon hearing the news of his election in 1513, he was quickly ordained in an “unceremonious fashion” in a tent in front of St. Peter’s. He is known primarily for the sale of indulgences to reconstruct St. Peter’s Basilica and his challenging of Martin Luther’s 95 theses.
He was born Giovanni de’ Medici, the second son of Lorenzo de’ Medici, Lorenzo the magnificent, ruler of Florence and a major patron of the arts and sciences. The de’ Medici family was known for collecting wild beasts. Leo’s father, Lorenzo the Magnificent, had cheetahs, bears, tigers, and lions. When Leo was elected to the papacy, he brought lions, leopards, monkeys, civit cats, and bears, which became the papal menagerie kept in a section of the Cortile del Belvedere, the courtyard of the Belvedere in Vatican city. It was on the lower portion of the courtyard that Pope Leo X would parade his prized white elephant Hanno for adoring crowds to see. Because of the pachyderm’s glorious history he was buried in the Cortile del Belvedere.
Leo was educated by some of the leading scholars of the day, such as the poet Angelo Poliziano and the Neoplatonist Marsilio Ficino, a fitting foundation for his lifelong love of learning and patronage of the arts.When he became pope, Leo X seem to have said to his brother Giuliano: “Since God has given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.” Whether this is true or not, he sure did enjoy the Papacy. He lived his life in Rome in extravagancy. This, apart from the inherited need to collect, probably explains the exotic animal collections of pope Leo. But it has to be said that he was also lavish in charity, and donated money to hospitals, discharged soldiers, poor students, artists, crippled, etcetera.
Having fallen ill of malaria, supposedly — considering the clinical symptoms and because malaria was endemic in Rome in those days, Pope Leo X died on December 1, 1521, so suddenly that the last sacraments could not be administered; but the contemporary suspicions of poison were unfounded.
The Pope’s elephantAn elephant was part of a collection of impressive and exotic gifts that King Manuel of Portugal gave to Pope Leo X in 1514. The gifts were given in hopes of getting the pope to support Portugal’s struggle against the Moors and other missions in the East. The elephant was a symbol of the great wealth that could be found in Asia and Africa.
The elephant had been shipped from India to Lisbon and was four years old by the time it was sent to Rome. It was very well trained and could obey commands given in both Indian and Portuguese. A Moorish trainer and a Saracen guide came with the elephant to Rome. It is said that the elephant was an albino. White elephants were very rare and received special treatment in India. They were normally reserved for the rulers.
The Romans were very excited about the arrival of the elephant. The beasts appeared fairly frequently in ancient Rome, but by the time of Leo X, they were unheard of. The elephant was scheduled to debut on March 19, 1514, which was the first Sunday of Lent. It was to appear in a procession with the rest of the Portuguese mission. Before the procession, the elephant was at the villa of a very wealthy Cardinal Adriano di Corneto, which was located outside of Porta Angelica. People were so eager to see the animal that they tried to climb through windows and break holes in the masonry. When the time finally came for the procession, a silver tower was put on the elephant’s back. A gold tabernacle and chalice were placed in it along with very elaborate holy vestments. The crowd was very impressed.
The Romans began to call the elephant “Annone,” but this was probably an italianized version of its original name, which historians believe was “Hanno”. These names were probably derived from the Indian word for elephant, which is “aana.”
Hanno the elephant was remarkably well behaved, but there were still a few accidents. One time the animal got so nervous by the huge crowd and commotion that it stampeded. In general though, Hanno was very well trained. When the pope made an appearance, it would genuflect, make loud noises, and even cry. Not all of the elephant’s behavior was believed to be a result of training though. Leo X is said to have loved Hanno like a modern day pet owner loves their cat or dog. It seems that Hanno would spontaneously kneel down and cry “Bar, bar, bar” upon seeing the pope.
When the elephant became ill, Leo got the finest doctors of Rome to help. The pope was very upset. Unfortunately, the doctor’s cure, which was a purgative containing gold, killed his beloved Hanno. The beast died on June 8, 1516. Hanno was buried in the Cortille del Belvedere.
Pope Leo X did not want his dear animal friend to be forgotten. Raphael interrupted his work on the cartoons for the ten tapestries for the Sistine Chapel to paint a fresco of Hanno, which has regrettably been lost.The pope wrote part of an epitaph for Hanno that was added onto by several other people. It was painted on the tower of the gate leading to the Vatican.
- Website of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University; syllabus on Rome (in the early modern era);- Wikipedia;
- Website Victoria & Albert museum London;
- Silvio A. Bedini, The Pope’s Elephant, Nashville, J.S. Sanders & Company, 1998, pg. 26 – 27;
- Bart Knols, Mug, Nieuw Amsterdam Uitgevers, 2009, pg. 50.