In May 1515, a rhinoceros, the first seen in Europe since antiquity, arrived in Lisbon as a gift from Sultan Muzafar of Cambay, to Emanuel I, King of Portugal. Emanuel intended to present the animal to Pope Leo X, but first a fight was arranged between it and an elephant. This was to verify the reports of classical writers that the rhinoceros would attack and kill the larger beast. The contest ended by default, as the elephant fled upon seeing its adversary. The rhinoceros was sent off to Rome, but its ship was wrecked in the Gulf of Genoa and the animal drowned. It had to be forwarded to the Pope stuffed.
Dürer never saw a rhinoceros in any form. He learned of it from a sketch and description sent by Valentin Ferdinand, a Moravian printer who had settled in Lisbon, to a friend in Nuremberg. Although the sketch has failed to survive, the inscription on the woodcut is worded as if it were a literal transcription of the report sent from Lisbon:
'In the year 1513 [sic] A.D., on May 1, there was brought to Emanuel of Lisbon, the great powerful king of Portugal, such a living animal from India. They call it a rhinoceros. It is represented here in its complete form. It has the color of a speckled turtle. And it is almost entirely covered by a thick shell. And in size it is like an elephant but lower on its legs, and almost invulnerable. It has a sharp strong horn on its nose, which it starts to sharpen whenever it is near stones. The stupid animal is the mortal enemy of the elephant. The elephant fears it terribly, because when they encounter, it runs with its head down between its front legs and fatally rips open the stomach of the elephant which is unable to protect itself. Because the animal is so well armed, the elephant cannot do anything to it. They also say that the rhinoceros is fast, lively and clever.'
Dürer's Rhinoceros, which might pass for a terrible war machine, made a tremendous impact. The woodblock was put through no fewer than eight editions, seven of which were posthumous. Around 1620 it was printed in Amsterdam together with a tone block, producing a chiaroscuro woodcut. The Rhinoceros served as the model for illustrations of the species and even for a Meissen porcelain figure by Johann Gottlieb Kirchner as late as 1730.
Although presumably printed in larger quantities, impressions of it were so popular and must have been passed around so much, that very few prints survived and impressions from the first edition are very rare.