The Pope's Elephant

Leo arrived in Rome in 1520, as a gift to the Pope by a Knight of the Order of Rhodes (also known as the Order of St John, and later the Order of Malta). Presumably, this gift was meant to greatly please and impress the Pope, as the Knights of Rhodes were in a rather precarious situation, and were hoping to het help from the Pope. The Ottoman forces sailing from Turkey repeatedly lay siege to the rock (Rhodes was a very small rocky island) and the Knights did not think they would be able to hold them off much longer. Soon, they would have to start looking for a new home.

What could have prompted the Knight Pedro Bodiviglia to make such an unusual gift to Pope Leo X?

An original answer may be found in Silvio A. Bedini's book: The Pope's Elephant, a narrative of the life of Hanno - a white elephant who was given to Leo X by the King of Portugal. As one of many gifts received by the Pope from the ruler of Portugal, Hanno was by far the Pope's favorite, and the pontiff was said to have spent many a happy hour with this odd pet (for whom he built a separate pen, far from the menagerie and other exotic animals, and much closer to the Papal residence).

"Immediately upon the elephant's arrival in Rome, it became the particular pet of the pope, and the papal court, and of the people of Rome as well. The pontiff often visited the elephant in its enclosure, intrigued by the high degree of intelligence demonstrated by the young beast, and its playful antics never ceased to delight him. It must also have amused those bystanders who observed the ungainly, corpulent, nearsighted pontiff clumsily playing with the equally rotund pachyderm." (Bedini, p 78.)

A sickly, and somewhat fatalistic man, Pope Leo X did have two well known passions: arts and the East. As a great patron of the arts, he sponsored the likes of Raphael and Michaelangelo, but also spent many an hour learning about the ways and riches of the Arab world (lands that were best known to the Portuguese, whose expeditions he graciously blessed!). So 'Orientalia' of all sorts were gifts of choice for this Pope; and preferably 'live' ones, as the Pope's attachment to Hanno the Elephant demonstrated to all potential suitors

Hanno died of a poorly diagnosed cold in 1516. The Pope was struck with sadness.

In some ways, Leo Africanus may have replaced this odd animal. Not literally of course, but the Pope's attachment to such an unusual persona, and such an 'exotic' man is not unlike his attachment to the famed elephant. Leo must have been something of a pet--- or at least a hobby!