Interspecies understanding: Exotic animals and their handlers at the Italian Renaissance Court

Sarah Cockram

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


In February 1492 Lodovico Sforza sent Francesco Gonzaga, marquis of Mantua, some particularly fierce lions, accompanied by an expert to instruct the animals’ new keepers in how to handle them. Animals such as these – exotic, valuable, and difficult to keep – were sent between courts along with humans who had specialized knowledge of their training and care. The importance of such specialists in Renaissance Italy has hitherto been neglected. These were experts such as the mahout of the pope's elephant; Ercole d'Este's cheetah trainers in Ferrara; the custodian of the Medici giraffe; or the Florentine handler responsible for trying to stop a lion mauling a fourteen‐year‐old boy who entered the enclosure. Using archival, visual and literary sources, this article argues that these experts had a central role in court culture, whether they were Europeans or came from the animals’ native lands. In common with hunt‐ or racing‐related professionals, with whom they shared experience of animals, handlers of the exotic were important members of the court hierarchy. They were crucial too in the gift economy and the international animal trade. Handlers can be seen as brokers and mediators between the worlds they traversed. They moved between cultures, transporting foreign creatures and techniques to far‐away places; between the collections and expertise available at different European centres; and, at the heart of the skill of the accomplished animal handler, between the realms of human and animal. The handlers’ expertise was predicated on interspecies understanding as they maintained and trained animals through an intimate awareness of the creatures’ requirements and natures. Understanding might be reciprocated too by the animal, not only in a response to training but in interaction and co‐operation. The world of keepers and their exotic animal charges in Renaissance Italy thus offers important new insights into inter‐relationships of human to human, state to state, culture to culture, and human to animal.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)277-298
JournalRenaissance Studies
Issue number2
Early online date6 Mar 2017
Publication statusPublished - Apr 2017


  • animal handlers
  • court culture
  • diplomacy
  • exotic animals
  • menageries


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