Of all the animals exotic to Europe, the elephant must have the longest and most distinguished history, including its depiction in paintings. This pair of articles looks at a selection of those, today covering the period up to the middle of the eighteenth century, and tomorrow following through to the twentieth.
Although the African elephant is now only found in sub-Saharan Africa, there was a North African species which became extinct in Roman times. The famous military elephants used by Hannibal in battle are believed to have been North African by species. Asian elephants were formerly found much further west and north than their current limited distribution, and ranged through coastal Iran, up through the Fertile Crescent into eastern Turkey. Europeans of the past thus had opportunities for contact with elephants from ancient times onwards.
One of the earliest ‘modern’ European paintings of an elephant is this sadly worn Elephant Fresco from 1473, in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan, Italy. Its anonymous artist was clearly familiar with the species and its characteristic prehensile trunk.
Images of elephants used in combat are quite widespread. This anonymous and undated fresco of a War Elephant in Bressanone Cathedral, in the South Tyrol of Italy, also suggests the origin of the placename the Elephant and Castle, which remains not uncommon among British pubs. The most famous of these, near Waterloo in south London, may have been established before 1600.
Hieronymus Bosch was and remains famous for his extraordinary images of composite creatures which evolve across his paintings. Seen here in the left panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights (c 1495-1505) is a curious mixture of the real and the imaginary. There’s an elephant and a giraffe, both early depictions of the species, together with monkeys, brown bears, rabbits, and more. But there are also some oddities, including a unicorn.
It was the exploits of the Carthaginian general Hannibal and the eventual destruction of the empire and city of Carthage which have provided some of the best opportunities to see elephants in European paintings.
Jacopo Ripanda devoted an entire room of frescoes in the Palazzo del Campidoglio in Rome to the Carthaginians and the Punic Wars. Among them is this detail of Hannibal Crossing the Alps from about 1510.
Being an exotic and spectacularly large mammal, elephants were also included in depictions of triumphs and tributes, as in Giulio Romano’s fresco of a Tribute to Apollo from 1526-28, in the Palazzo del Tè, in Mantua, Italy. Some rather stranger and more mythical beasts are at the left in the far distance, but this artist appears to have been familiar with the characteristics of the elephant.
Between about 1570 and 1600, Cornelis Cort painted this magnificent work showing The Battle of Zama, which marked the last stage in the Second Punic War, in 202 BCE, in modern Tunisia. Contemporary accounts record that Hannibal here deployed no less than eighty of his war elephants, shown here with their wooden castles mounted. Despite opening the battle with a charge of these formidable animals, the Romans under Scipio Africanus dodged them, and went on to defeat the Carthaginians on their home ground.
This canvas of Hannibal Crossing the Alps on Elephants has been attributed to Poussin, and dated to 1625-26, but is no longer considered to be by Poussin’s hand.
Hannibal’s moment of enduring fame came much earlier in the Second Punic War. During the late autumn of 218 BCE, he led his army of more than 20,000 infantry, 6,000 cavalry, and 37 elephants across the Alps. He caught the Romans near modern Turin where they were in winter quarters, and defeated them. It was the first step in a campaign which took him dangerously close to Rome itself.
Among the many superb animal paintings of Paulus Potter, Orpheus and Animals from 1650 is one of the most unusual, showing a wide range of different animal species, some of which were not well-known then, and one of which (the unicorn) did not even exist. Those seen include a Bactrian camel (two humps), donkey, cattle, ox, wild pig, sheep, dog, goat, rabbit, lions, dromedary (one hump), horse, elephant, snake, deer, unicorn, lizard, wolf, and monkey.
The Carthaginians under Hannibal were not the only army to use elephants in battle. Pyrrhus, the Greek King of Epirus, was loaned twenty elephants by Ptolemy II of Egypt for his invasion of Italy in 280 BCE, and they proved key to his defeat of the Romans at the Battle of Heraclea that year.
Pyrrhus also used his elephants on a more personal level. Before he was due to meet with the Roman Fabricius, the Greek general had one of them concealed behind a large drape near where he was to meet to speak with the Roman. When Pyrrhus gave the signal, the drape was removed, unveiling the huge elephant, which raised its trunk and emitted a fearful cry.
Ferdinand Bol painted a pair of works telling this story, the second of which is The Fearlessness of Fabricius in the Camp of Pyrrhus (1655-56). This shows the Roman turning calmly to Pyrrhus and telling him that neither gold nor the elephant made any impression on him.
As I mentioned at the start of this article, Asian elephants were found in the Fertile Crescent in the past. This is exemplified in Charles Le Brun’s painting of Alexander Entering Babylon from 1665. This shows the young Macedonian king riding in a large golden chariot hauled by a small elephant, as the great spoils of his early successes are being shown around them.
My last painting for today is this small but wonderfully gestural oil sketch of a baby elephant, which has been attributed to Giovanni Antonio Guardi, brother of the even more sketchy Francesco Guardi, who was an innovative Venetian painter with a very painterly style.