There’s an elephant buried underneath the Vatican

(Smithsonian) Beneath the Vatican’s Belvedere courtyard, just a few feet below ground, lies the skeletal remains of an elephant. Yes, an elephant. The story of how and why it got there is an especially peculiar chapter of papal history.

The skeleton was discovered in 1962, writes Sarah Laskow for Atlas Obscura, while maintenance workers were installing a heating and cooling system. It dates back to 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, Laskow explains, which threatened 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.

Though Europeans knew elephants existed, the animal hadn’t been seen since the days of the Roman Empire. Manuel brought elephants back to the continent, demanding a tribute of 10 each year from his vassals, Almudena Pérez de Tudela and Annemaria Jordan Gschwend write for the journal Early Modern Zoology. Hanno wasn’t the only animal gifted to Leo X by Portugal — Manuel also sent a cheetah, leopards and a Persian horse — but the elephant certainly drew the most attention. [More]

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Smithsonian Magazine