In February of 1962, while digging up the Vatican’s Belvedere Courtyard to modernize a heating and cooling system, a group of Italian workers hit ʙᴏɴᴇ. There was a large tooth and four pieces of a giant jawʙᴏɴᴇ, and at first they thought they had found a dinosaur.
But the ʙᴏɴᴇs were not fossilized, and when the custodian of the Vatican Library collection had them examined, he learned that they belonged to a much more modern mammal—an elephant.
For decades, no one inquired further into the provenance of the elephant sᴋᴇʟᴇᴛᴏɴ ʙᴜʀɪᴇᴅ beneath the Vatican, until in the 1980s and 90s, the Smithsonian’s Historian Emeritus, Silvio Bedini, uncovered the elephant’s history. He publisʜᴇᴅ the results of his research in 1997, in “The Pope’s Elephant”, the most thorough study to date of the elephant that lived in the Cortile del Belvedere.
His name was Annone—or, once anglicized, Hanno—and he belonged to Pope Leo X, who was elected pope in 1513. Hanno was not just a pet: he played a part in the politics of Portuguese expansion and made a cameo in the Protestant Reformation. But above all, Hanno was a wonder. Though Europeans knew elephants existed, the animal hadn’t been seen since the days of the Roman Empire.
In the 16th century, when Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici became Pope Leo X. At the time, Christian rulers would present gifts to the Vatican to curry favor; when Pope Leo X was elected in 1513, Manuel I, the king of Portugal, decided he would outdo all of his rivals.
Manuel wanted to expand Portugal’s control of shipping routes to India, which ᴛʜʀᴇᴀᴛened an overland monopoly that belonged to Egyptian traders. Hoping to sway Pope Leo X to his side, Manuel sent a caravan of rare goods to the Vatican, laden down with gold, jewels and textiles — as well as an Indian elephant named Hanno.
Hanno arrived in Rome just before he was scheduled to appear before the Pope. And in his first official appearance, he made an equally dramatic impression. Walking through the streets of Rome adorned with handsome vestment and with a silver tower on his back, Hanno dropped to his dropped to his knees and bowed his head low upon reaching the Pope, before lifting back up to trumpet three times in the air. Then he sucked water into his trunk and sprayed water down on everyone assembled—including the Pope, who thought the whole of the elephant’s performance delightful.
The pope was so taken with Hanno that he personally thanked Manuel, writing in a letter, “The sight of this quadruped provides us with the greatest amusement and has become for our people an object of extraordinary wonder.” When the elephant ᴅɪᴇᴅ just two years later, Leo X was ᴅᴇᴠᴀsᴛᴀᴛᴇᴅ; he wrote a lengthy epitaph and commissioned a memorial fresco from the artist Raphael.
Leo X’s extravagant affection for Hanno also fueled disapproval of the Catholic Church. The elephant became the basis for an early criticism publisʜᴇᴅ by Martin Luther’s followers, while satirists jokingly compared Hanno’s ᴛʀᴇᴀᴛᴍᴇɴᴛ to the relics of the saints, Smithsonian historian Silvio A. Bedini writes in “The Pope’s Elephant.”
Hanno’s sᴋᴇʟᴇᴛᴏɴ still lies beneath the Vatican courtyard where he was ʙᴜʀɪᴇᴅ centuries ago, although he’s missing his tusks — they were removed and are reportedly stored somewhere else.