The art of Pietro Longhi, chronicling some less than important aspects of fashionable and leisured life in Venice in the mid-eighteenth century, is a strange world, perhaps, in which to encounter an Indian rhinoceros. But here the thick-skinned quardruped is indifferently chewing hay while festively clad Venetians look on.
Longhi painted the animal in the year 1751 for a patrician "amateur of curiosities." This is the second of two known versions of the subject. The same patron also commissioned from him a painting of a different "curiosity" -- an Irish giant called Magrath. He then painted Magrath and the rhinoceros together in a picture, though whether or not the two actually met isn't clear. Whatever these pictures say about the seventeenth century European attitude to human beings of unusual size, there is no doubt that the rhinoceros was a more than rare sight. Longhi must have gained a minor reputation as a painter of strange creatures. He was later commissioned to paint a "lion show" and then an elephant exhibited on a platform.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the painter saw the "Exhibition of a Rhinoceros at Venice" as a comic confrontation of artificial manners and brute (if eccentric) nature. Comic because neither the fancy-dressed humans nor the chomping rhino seem as interested in each other as they are in themselves.The contrast between masquerading people and the earthy factuality of beast, fodder and rudimentary wooden enclosure prompts a sense of irony. The theatrical fantasy of the ridotto is upstaged by the animal's solid reality.
Just who is on display? Peculiar beast or peculiar Venetians? Longhi makes us look at the men and women in their weird masks and dominoes from the standpoint of rhinoceros unicornus, and from this angle homo sapiens is certainly an odd species.
There is also a funny resemblance between the men's white face masks (the "Bauta") and the deep folds of skin in which the Indian rhinoceros is enveloped. This visual analogy adds to the comedy. (The black mask, the "Moreta" worn by the women also contributes to the strangeness). Isn't this remarkable creature -- the first seen in Europe since the example immortalized by Durer in his famous woodcut of 1515) -- really some sort of cow in disguise, or a masquerading horse? Remove its mask and surely a quite different creature would emerge. The situation set up by the picture seems more dream than reality. One can imagine twentieth century surrealists -- Magritte or Ernst -- relishing its suggestion of unknown symbolism. Nobody in it seems entirely credible, and even the antics of the owner or trainer, holding up the poor animal's horn, and pointing, might be acting out something more enigmatic than a mere lecture on natural history.
Longhi's art brings a kind of truthfulness to a world of frivolity and pretending. The playwright Goldoni is frequently quoted as hailing him as a man "who is looking for truth." And another way of looking at this picture is as a fairly straightforward representation of an actual event. The rhinoceros was brought to Europe ten years before by a Captain David Montvandermeer. He had toured it from center to center before bringing it to Venice for the festival in 1751. The people coming to see it would naturally dress for the festival. The rhinoceros would naturally be used to all the fuss. A painter would naturally be asked to record the occasion. A medal had already been struck in its honor at Nuremburg. The painter Oudry had also painted it in France. Longhi's record is perfectly natural . . . Or is it?