The Pope’s Rhinoceros

In February 1516, a Portuguese ship sank with the loss of all hands a mile off the coast of Italy. The Nossa Senhora da Ajuda had sailed 14,000 miles from the Indian kingdom of Gujarat. Her mission: to deliver a rhinoceros to the Pope.

“The Pope’s Rhinoceros” tells the stories that culminate in this bizarre incident. Salvestro, an ex-mercenary fleeing from the Italian wars, is the hero of the tale. He has returned to his birthplace on the Baltic island of Usedom where a sect of secretive monks are planning their first pilgrimage in 200 years. Their journey will take themselves and Salvestro back across the Alps to Rome where Leo X, the pleasure-loving Pope, holds court. Here the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal compete for His Holiness’s favour as he divides up the New World between them. A rhinoceros, unseen in Europe since antiquity, seems the perfect bribe to secure this whimsical Pope’s approval. But where is this near-mythical beast to be found?

The quest draws in Salvestro, the reclusive monks, Rome’s corrupt cardinals and courtesans. All are blind to their different fates and all their fates are bound to the rhinoceros. Ranging from the herring colonies of the Baltic Sea to a fly-blown port in India, from a tribe hidden in the West African rain forest to atrocities committed in an obscure town in Tuscany, Lawrence Norfolk’s second novel holds up the true history of the rhinoceros as a mirror to the fantasies and obsessions of the Renaissance.

“The Pope’s Rhinoceros” was written in London and Chicago between 1992 and 1996. Originally I conceived the book as five loosely-linked novellas but abandoned that schema as the text of the first two sections expanded. The novel’s opening – an account of the formation of the Baltic Sea – was excerpted in New Writing 4, edited by AS Byatt and Peter Porter. The rhinoceros itself was sketched at Marseilles by an itinerant Moravian printer whose drawing inspired Dürer to create his famous image of the beast. Although inaccurate, Dürer’s woodcut was to establish the iconography of the rhinoceros for the next two centuries.

The research for “The Pope’s Rhinoceros” was carried out in London, Rome and Chicago where the Newberry Library holds a large archive of Renaissance manuscripts. The opening section, which is narrated by successive colonies of herring, took six months to write due to the unusual oceanography of the Baltic Sea.

Research notes for "The Pope's Rhinoceros"


Editions of “The Pope’s Rhinoceros”


‘The biggest book – in every sense- to be published in English since the Second World War…I was thrilled and engaged by its brilliance.’ Tibor Fischer

‘Part historical extravaganza, part picturesque adventure tale…a novel of brilliant narrative elaboration.’ Barry Unsworth

‘[a] rollicking historical novel …’ The Good Book Guide

‘Lawrence Norfolk is just about ahead of everyone in his generation of English novelists…a truly fabulous piece of British fiction.’ The Observer

‘Chaotic and colourful…It is sad, funny, shocking. I was sorry to finish it.’ Historical Novels Review

 ‘Lawrence Norfolk has created one of the most ambitious and inventive historical novels to be written since the death of Robert Graves…an astonishing achievement, little short of a masterpiece.’ The Independent: Weekend

‘The author spins his yarn with colour power and wit.  Outrageously epic at the beginning it shifts through…melodrama, carnality, mysticism, farce and satire. Norfolk is, above all, a champion storyteller.’ The Spectator

‘Richly imagined, painstakingly researched, superbly paced and utterly gripping…an immensely sly, accomplished and satisfying feat of storytelling…pages of densely imagined description so rich that one is cruelly torn between a desire to savour every word, and rush on to find out what happens next.’ Independent on Sunday

 ‘Storytelling on a grand scale…comparable to works such as Vargas Llosas’s The War of the End of the World.’ Sunday Times

 ‘What distinguishes this novel above all – as it distinguishes all first-rate fiction – is the sense of urgent communication in it, the pressure of something that needs to be told.’ The Daily Telegraph

‘that breathtaking prose: it’s brilliant. What we need is more storytelling, and more writers like Lawrence Norfolk. ‘ Time Out

‘THE POPE’S RHINOCEROS is a gargantuan, dazzling fable’ The Guardian

‘sordid, humorous, luminous, action-packed…It’s sense of chaos, its attention to physical details rather than theoretical thoughts presents a new old way of seeing the world. Enter it at your peril.’ The Scotsman

‘The extraordinary brilliance of his new book, THE POPE’S RHINOCEROS, seems certain to bring him a slice of that elusive British fame.’ The Independent (interview)

‘Norfolk writes an elaborate prose which makes a gorgeous envelope for his rich, discursive form of poetic realism.’ Independent on Sunday (paperback review)

‘THE POPE’S RHINOCEROS is extremely clever, dazzling, and energetic…Norfolk has at his command an astonishing verbal palette …’ Catholic Herald

‘fluent, baroque-punk…A kaleidoscopic vista, this is epic, melodramatic, bawdy, bloodthirsty, humorous’ The Directory

‘as ambitious as LEMPRIERE’S DICTIONARY and is also very successful…it shouldn’t be long before he is the yardstick by which other writers are measured’ The Evening Standard

‘Mr Norfolk’s heady originality and intellectual energy are apparent on every page.’  New York Times Book Review

‘…one of the most original, energetic and ambitious novels of recent years. It marks the emergence of a major writer.’ Kirkus Reviews

 ‘…a fabulous adventure tale that mirrors the fantasies and obsessions of an age.’ New York Times Book Review

 ‘panoramic in scale, a vast, intriguing and exotic novel…The novel is a remarkable baroque creation, its momentum never once faltering throughout its 750 pages.’ Kansai Time Out

‘The book of the autumn!’            ARD TV, Kulturreport

‘Even more fantastic and more convincing than Lempiere’s Dictionary…The reading is pure enjoyment…Norfolk’s book is a historical novel. This is not the place to analyse the complexity and all the literary tricks that put it from an artistic point of view in my opinion high above Eco’s novel THE NAME OF THE ROSE. What makes the book extraordinary is the fact that it is, despite of all complexity that makes the critics swarm, highly accessible.’ Die Welt

‘Norfolk is one of the most amazing authors of the modern Anglo-Saxon literature…The book is an tremendous panorama, packed with characters and scenes…Norfolk gives every character a genuine, distinctive aura…He is an outstanding, unique author…THE POPE’S RHINOCEROS is the book of a riveting, extremely innovative author.’ Die Welt am Sonntag

 ‘We admire all the details!’            Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

 ‘First and foremost, there is sheer amazement about the author’s inexhaustible delight in storytelling and he already caused a sensation with his first book. Where does he find all his ideas?’ Der Tagesspiegel

 ‘Both entertaining and bizarre pictures from the Renaissance…He gives the genre of the historical novel an entirely new and witty quality.’ SonntagsZeitung, Zürich

‘It reminds us of Peter Greenaway’s dark but always ironic sense of humour. It is Norfolk’s achievement to have bestowed a literally innovative quality to the historical novel.’ Schweize Illustrierte

‘Norfolk switches between places in a breathtaking pace; the contrast between the stupefyingly depicted ages of the earth, the descriptions of the sea water and the ant-like hustle and bustle in Rome is impressive.’ Der Standard, Wien