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Rare sights of 16th-century Constantinople

The artist in the Holy Roman Emperor’s delegation to Constantinople in 1574 would have been spoilt for choice, from Hagia Sophia’s remarkable domed interior and the ancient Hippodrome, to obelisks and the Column of Constantine.

Two young animals, one dark, the other pale, also caught his painterly eye – which might well have widened in surprise. They were rhinoceroses, reportedly from Abyssinia, and likely destined for the Sultan’s menagerie in the Hippodrome.

These rare portraits and the architectural highlights of the fabled city of Constantinople feature in the Freshfield Album, which is available online for the first time through the Wren Library’s digitisation project.

Rhinos were extremely exotic to sixteenth-century Europeans. Albrecht Dürer carved his acclaimed woodcut from a sketch and a description of the rhino gifted by an Indian sultan to the King of Portugal in 1515. Dürer never actually saw the animal, which died while being shipped to the Pope in Rome.

Nearly 60 years later, the artist in the diplomatic entourage to Constantinople saw a rare sight. In his tender portraits, the young animals, each wearing a lustrous collar, look like pets ready for a walk.

Trinity Librarian Dr Nicolas Bell said:

Unlike Dürer’s famous image of half a century earlier, these rhinos seem to have been drawn from life – perhaps the first time such exotic creatures had been depicted so realistically.

The Freshfield Album was given to Trinity in 1935 by Edwin Hanson Freshfield, a student at the College, whose father had acquired it in the late nineteenth century. It contains 21 detailed drawings and sketches, in ink and watercolour.

Read Views of Constantinople: The Freshfield Album online on the Trinity College Library blog.

View The Freshfield Album.

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