It all began with an off-hand remark, Silvio Bedini writes about the genesis of his new book, The Pope's Elephant. He was researching in the Vatican archives when someone suggested he find out whatever happened to the rhinoceros at the Vatican. Not surprisingly, Bedini was intrigued. He found no rhino, but gradually he unearthed the story of a different papal pachyderm an elephant. Only later did he find the elusive rhinoceros that had inspired the whole search. In the early 1500s, the King of Portugal sent a young white Indian elephant as a gift to Leo X, the decadent, pleasure-addicted Pope who said, God has given us the papacy. Let us enjoy it. The Vatican menagerie was already impressive, but Hanno the elephant quickly became its star. Now it and its adventurous life have been resurrected with wit and style. In time Bedini actually found the creature's remains. This story is under 250 pages long, but it unveils a whole era. Garnished with dozens of handsome illustrations, from contemporary woodcuts to photos of sculptures, the story conveys the texture of life in the most powerful organization in the world during the time of Michelangelo and Leonardo. Bedini is Historian Emeritus at the Smithsonian and also served as that institution's Keeper of Rare Books. Readers may be familiar with his own volumes, most of which explore quirky byroads of the history of science. His wonderful biographies of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker are both vivid narratives and constantly surprising studies of the beginnings of science in the New World. Bedini is fascinated by the personalities that have shaped history in curious and little-known ways. Like Daniel Boorstin's book Cleopatra's Nose, The Pope's Elephant explores the ways in which seemingly inconsequential events nudge the course of empires. Bedini marshals an astonishing amount of in-depth scholarship, including research in several countries, and makes it look easy. His book is not dry and dusty history. It's a wild story of eccentric personalities in a pivotal era and of how a single animal tangled together those men and their nations.
And the rhino? It has its own interwoven story, one that ends tragically. You have already seen pictures of this animal Albrecht Durer's famous drawing of an armored-looking rhino, nowadays reproduced on everything from book covers to mouse pads. This is not the only satisfying surprise awaiting you in The Pope's Elephant. Michael Sims writes about the Pope's elephant and rhino in his book Darwin's Orchestra (Henry Holt).