The painting records a historical event, the exhibition in Europe for the carnival of 1751 of a rhinoceros that had been brought to Europe ten years previously. This was one of the few rhinoceroses that had been seen in Europe since 1515, when Dürer made his famous woodcut based on drawings of one that had been taken to Lisbon.
Longhi represents the occasion with unaffected simplicity as the showman displays the animal to a group of spectators in carnival costume, holding in one hand the horn of the animal and a whip.
Michael Wilson: Well, the subject of this picture is rather interesting. As you see it’s a rhinoceros being exhibited at a carnival in Venice in 1741. Well, rhinoceroses in Europe at that time were very rare, and as far as we know this was only the fifth rhinoceros to have appeared in Europe since Roman times and this one was probably the most famous of them all – it was a real celebrity.
I should say ‘she’, she was called Miss Clara, and she toured Europe. She was given to the director of the East India Company, she came to Holland, and then she went through all the European capitals over a period of more than 10 years. She was seen by the Empress Maria Teresa, she was seen by the Elector of Saxony, she came to London, where she was exhibited with two dwarfs, a contortionist and a crocodile and finally she ended up in Venice, so she was a real celebrity. She appeared on paintings, tapestries, porcelain, medals were struck, all sorts of things were made. Women even had their hair done in a kind of hairdo à la rhinoceros, with a great feather horn sticking up. Sadly you see that the poor rhinoceros doesn’t even have its horn anymore and the keeper is holding it aloft. And she does really look rather dismal standing in this stall, being stared at by all these Venetian carnival goers wearing their masks.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Four, October 2008