How Pope Leo X’s Pet Elephant Helped Spark the Reformation

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Public Domain, Wikipedia / ChurchPOP

In February 1962, just a few months before the opening of the Second Vatican Council, some workers were digging in a Vatican courtyard to work on an air conditioning system when they came across a peculiar find: very large animal bones.

At first, they thought they had discovered dinosaur bones! But scientific examination showed they weren’t dinosaur bones. Nonetheless they were still something very intriguing: elephant bones.

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How in the world did elephant bones get to be buried in the middle of a Vatican courtyard? Elephants aren’t exactly native to Italy!

The origins of the bones remained a mystery for several years until the Smithsonian historian Silvio Bedini finally pieced together the story – including its connection to the Protestant Reformation.

An Extraordinary Gift

In the early 1500s, it was customary for the King of Portugal, like many rulers in Europe, to send gifts to the Bishop of Rome to show good will and maintain a good relationship. In years past, Portugual had sent various kinds of exotic birds, primates, and wild cats that Portuguese traders had acquired in their global trading.

But in 1514, King Manuel wanted to do something extraordinary: he would send Pope Leo X an elephant.

Sending an elephant was a big deal. People in Italy were aware of elephants, but no elephant had been seen in Italy for centuries. They were strange, almost mythological beasts. And the elephant the Portuguese king wanted to send as a gift would have to come all the way from India.

Nonetheless, upon his orders, a white elephant named Hanno arrived at an Italian port. The animal would then have to be walked to the papal palace in Rome.

Unfortunately, it left destruction in its wake. Not because the elephant itself caused much damage (don’t blame Hanno!), but because massive crowds flocked to see it. In order to get a once-in-a-half-millennium glimpse of the exotic animal, people apparently “trampled fields, crashed in roofs, and tore through walls in order to get a glimpse.”

Finally, after several days of travel, Hanno arrived in Rome. And he made quite a first impression.

The story goes that, upon seeing the Pope for the first time, the elephant stopped and bowed his head to the ground. He then lifted his head and and trumpeted three times. Finally, he sucked in some nearby water into his trunk and blew it over the adoring crowd.

Pope Leo X loved it.

His Favorite Pet

A special enclosure was soon built just for Hanno between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Apostolic Palace, and Leo X opened it to the public every weekend. People wrote poems inspired by the beast, and he was regularly featured in processions. Leo X wrote a letter to King Manuel gushing with praise for his new pet:

It was the elephant which excited the greatest astonishment to the whole world, as much from the memories it evoked of the ancient past, for the arrival of similar beast was fairly frequent in the days of ancient Rome … One is almost tempted to put faith in the assertion of the idolators who pretend that a certain affinity exists between these animals and mankind. The sight of this quadruped provides us with the greatest amusement and has become for our people an object of extraordinary wonder.

Sadly, Hanno only lived two years in Rome. Hanno became constipated and was given gold as treatment (common at the time), which of course didn’t help but actually hastened his demise. He died on June 8th, 1516 with the Pope at his side.

Leo X commissioned the great artist Raphael to paint a fresco in Hanno’s honor, and Leo himself composed a lengthy memorial epitaph that accompanied the painting (you can read the whole thing here). Hanno’s body was buried in the courtyard in which he had lived – where his bones were found centuries later.

The Reformation Connection

Amazingly, this whole elephant episode may have helped spark the Protestant Reformation.

Pope Leo X was known for having an overly extravagant papal court, including, among other things, regularly throwing lavish masquerades at the Vatican. Soon-to-be Protestant Reformers were already angry at the Church, but the fact the Pope now had a special pet elephant from India named Hanno was viewed as the perfect over-the-top example of how corrupt the papacy had become.

Just one year after the elephant’s death, Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. One historian writes that Hanno the elephant “formed the basis for one of the first published criticisms leveled against him by German supporters of Martin Luther.”

You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

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