White elephant (n.) an idiom for a valuable possession of which its owner cannot dispose, and whose cost (particularly cost of upkeep) is out of proportion to its usefulness or worth.
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Did you ever receive a “white elephant” as a gift? Maybe it was a lamp or bric-a-brac given by a beloved aunt. You would never intentionally hurt her feelings, but what in the world, you wonder, will you do with this?
Perhaps Pope Leo X felt the same way when he received a gift of a white elephant—a REAL white elephant!—from King Manuel of Portugal. Pope Leo was a popular leader who had helped to keep peace between European rivals, held Islam at bay, and encouraged Portugal in its explorations and discoveries in the Americas.
Imagine the context in which the elephant arrived in medieval Rome: In 1514, there were no National Geographic magazines or television documentaries. The camera was not invented until 1839, so there were no nature photographs. Paintings and sculptures were expensive, and few artists would have themselves traveled to Asia or Africa, where they might actually see a real, live elephant.
Most people in Italy, then, had never seen even a picture of such a wonderful beast when King Manuel’s gift, an elephant named Hanno, was transported by land and sea to the city of Rome. According to legend, the animal was led down the main thoroughfare, near where the Via della Conciliazione is today, and brought before Pope Leo. As it approached the papal throne, its trainer gave a command and the elephant genuflected on one knee—thrilling the audience.
Hanno’s arrival was commemorated in sketches and woodcuts at the time, and the story of his arrival was immortalized in poetry. Hanno became a treasured addition to the papal collections, and was a favorite in processions through the streets of Rome. A special building was erected to house the large animal, located right between St. Peter’s Basilica and the Apostolic Palace.
But Hanno’s time at the Vatican was short. In 1516, just two years after its arrival at the Vatican, the great animal fell ill; and on June 8 of that year, with the pope at his side, Hanno died. It is thought that Hanno’s death was hastened by a purgative administered during his illness, containing a large amount of gold. As befitting a member of royalty, Hanno was memorialized in a fresco by the artist Raphael; and Pope Leo himself composed the epitaph:
Under this great hill I lie buried
Mighty elephant which the King Manuel
Having conquered the Orient
Sent as captive to Pope Leo X.
At which the Roman people marveled—
A beast not seen for a long time,
And in my brutish breast they perceived human feelings.
Fate envied me my residence in the blessed Latium
And had not the patience to let me serve my master a full three years.
But I wish, oh gods, that the time which Nature would have assigned to me,
And Destiny stole away,
You will add to the life of the great Leo.
He lived seven years
He died of angina
He measured twelve palms in height.
Giovanni Battista Branconio dell’Aquila
Privy chamberlain to the pope
And provost of the custody of the elephant,
Has erected this in 1516, the 8th of June,
In the fourth year of the pontificate of Leo X.
That which Nature has stolen away
Raphael of Urbino with his art has restored.
Did you enjoy this story? Read more about it in The Pope’s Elephant by Silvio Bedini, Historian Emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution.
IMAGE by Raffael or Giulio Romano (after a lost drawing by Raffael) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons