The Elephant Under The Vatican

There’s an elephant—a Pope’s elephant—buried under the Vatican. Of all all the treasures beneath this hallowed ground, such as the Vatican necropolis and the tomb of Saint Peter, this may be the most surprising and unexpected. And if you’ve been on a Vatican tour, you’ve very likely peeked at the area where the pachyderm was buried, the Belvedere Courtyard.

The Pope’s Elephant

But how did this elephant, whose name was Annone (Hanno in English), became a resident of the Vatican State?

The sequence of events takes us back to 1514, when King Manuel I of Portugal sent a rare white elephant to Rome as a gift to celebrate the election of Giovanni de Medici to the papal soil as Leo X.

The Pope's Elephant belonged to Leo X
The Portrait of Pope Leo X with two Cardinals

“That’s the perfect sixteenth-century risposte to the question ‘What does one get the man who has everything?’” says Agnes Crawford, one the art historians who leads our Vatican city tours.

The fourth child of Lorenzo Medici, Leo X is best remembered for his tireless support to the arts. Under his watch, the questionable, yet common at the time, practice of granting indulgences in exchange of donations reached a peak.

“He’s credited with having said ‘Let us enjoy the papacy since God has given it to us,’” says docent Gregory DiPippo. “His role as a patron of the arts is unquestionable, as you would expect from a member of the Medici family,” he adds. “Whoever had a skill in the arts at large—drawing, painting, music, poetry—and came to Rome, would find a job with Leo X.”

Hanno the Marvel  

Raphael's drawing of the Pope's elephant
Hanno the Elephant, after Raphael

The Pope’s elephant soon became the pope’s favorite pet, and a real sensation for the whole country. Everyone wanted to get a glimpse of him. The pope agreed to have the curious come see the quadruped on weekends, at the Belvedere Courtyard. Upon arriving to Rome, “the caravan that was following behind daily increased in size, supplemented by workers from the towns, peasants from the fields, and gentlemen from their villas. All were curious, avidly seeking a view of the great animals and the strangers speaking a strange language who accompanied it.” (Silvio Bedini, The Pope’s Elephant)

The Elephant’s Death

However, the Pope’s elephant didn’t live long in the Eternal city. After two years, probably because of a detrimental diet, he developed painful constipation. The rich-in-gold suppository administered to treat him hastened the poor animal’s early demise. Leo X, devastated by his death, commissioned Raphael a fresco (now lost) depicting the elephant. He also wrote a commemorative epitaph in his honor.

Also poet Pietro Aretino turned to writing. His satirical paper called ‘The Last Will and Testament of The Elephant Hanno’ had him banned from Rome for some of the imagined terms of said ‘will’. “Pietro was, unsurprisingly, dispatched from Rome pretty quickly after the publication,” says docent Hilary Bockham. “But it launched his name, reputation and future success quite spectacularly.”

Vatican gardens where the Pope's elephant grazed
Detail of the Vatican gardens

The Elephant Under the Vatican

In February 1962, during construction works at the Belvedere courtyard, workers found the bones of a mysterious animal, which they believed to be a dinosaur at first. Further analysis revealed that instead it was an elephant, however not much investigation followed until the 1980’s and 1990’s, when Silvio Bedini looked into the findings. He published the results in a booked titled The Pope’s Elephant.