Bare Bones

Steven Shapin

  • The Rhinoceros and the Megatherium: An Essay in Natural History by Juan Pimentel, translated by Peter Mason
    Harvard, 356 pp, £21.95, January 2017, ISBN 978 0 674 73712 9

What does a rhinoceros look like? If you are fortunate enough to have seen one in the flesh, you can can summon up an image from memory. If you haven’t seen one, you will have to conjure a mental image from pictures seen in books or in nature documentaries. There’s at least a chance that in forming this image your imagination will have tapped into a picture that is more than five hundred years old – Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut of the outlandish pachyderm, made in 1515. Dürer himself never saw a rhino. He too had to imagine the beast, so your imaginings might have something to do with his imaginings, which ‘bodied forth the forms of things unknown’, giving them a shape, a name and a durable engraved image.

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