Rudolf II is known to have assembled his grand menagerie in Prague with the help of agents such as Hans Khevenhüller, Imperial Ambassador to Spain, who on behalf of the Emperor scoured the Iberian ports, particularly Lisbon and Madrid, in search of the rarest of animals arriving from the New World. The unusual and striking Xolo, which would have arrived from Mexico, surely would have caught Khevenhüller’s eye, and, in fact, documents and correspondence do record that a dog of this breed was sent from Iberia to Rudolf II in Prague in the 1580s.1 With this in mind, it is tempting to think that the prized dog portrayed in the present painting could well have been the one sent to the Emperor during this time, although as of yet no proof of this has been uncovered.
The dog has been one of the most readily depicted animals in art since the fifteenth century, most often portrayed near their masters in court portraits. It was not until about the mid-sixteenth century, with revolutionary examples like Jacopo Bassano’s Two Hunting Dogs Tied to a Tree Stump (fig. 1), that this faithful companion began to hold a place in art as a subject in its own right. On the one hand, the present painting emerges from this tradition, yet on the other, serves to add an additional level of appeal to the genre. This dog, with its ornate leather and metal collar and its regal pose, was held in high esteem by its owner. While at first glance it may appear that there are two dogs depicted within this extensive landscape, the distinct markings, comparable sizes, and identical collars suggest it is the same canine from two different angles. The varying viewpoints not only bred an arresting image but also allowed for a detailed rendering of a breed of dog from the New World that would have been widely unknown throughout Europe at this time.
Depicted in this painting is a spotted version of the Xoloitzcuintli (show-loh-eets-kweent-lee), a rare breed of hairless dog native to Mexico that is recognized as among the oldest breed of dogs in the world, having been known for over thousands of years in the Americas. The Xolo—whose name derives from an Aztec god Xolotl and the Aztec word for dog Itzcuintli—was sacred among the ancient tribes of the Americas, serving as a safeguard from harm and evil spirits both in life and death. Barring wisps of hair on their brow and snout, the breed’s hairlessness sets them apart from others and would have undoubtedly enthralled collectors, agents, and onlookers upon the arrival of such dogs to Iberian ports in the late sixteenth century.
With the discovery of the Americas and the opening of trade routes to the New World, the Far East, and Africa came an influx not only of exotic objects to fill Kunstkammers, but also exotic animals to populate menageries—the living and outdoor extensions of cabinets of curiosity. Because of the Austrian Habsburgs' vast empire and their access to the major ports in Iberia, through which many of these rare creatures arrived, they had first say in acquiring the animals they desired. Some of the most prominent menageries were found at their courts in Iberia and Central Europe such as Catherine of Austria’s in Lisbon, Philip II’s in Madrid, Maximilian II’s near Vienna, and Ferdinand II’s in Innsbruck, yet they reached a zenith with that of Rudolf II’s in Prague. These menageries were filled by way of a number of agents, and Hans Khevenhüller, Spain's Imperial ambassador from 1575-1606, was among the most important of these figures for the Habsburgs. During his tenure as ambassador, he acted as their personal agent, actively procuring and transporting live and rare animals from Iberia to Prague and Vienna, as well as to Innsbruck, Graz and Munich. With his unflinching energy and a network of merchants and scouts spread throughout Iberia and the Americas, he transformed Habsburg menageries in the late sixteenth century and allowed them to reach the splendor for which they are still recognized today.2
With the assistance of agents such as Khevenhüller, Emperor Rudolf II in Prague was able to establish one of the largest and most impressive menageries throughout all of Europe that laid the groundwork for modern day zoos. His unquenchable appetite for acquiring the rarest and wildest of animals gave way to sprawling gardens around Prague Castle that were filled with creatures from around the world, such as gyrfalcons, lions, over seventy Spanish horses, and the now extinct Dodo bird (fig. 2). In addition to the Xolo, Rudolf was known to have also owned a comparable hairless breed of dog from China, and the present work serves to visually signal how such rare breeds of dogs were indeed in Central Europe by the turn of the seventeenth century. At the same time, it remains one of the only full scale depictions of the Xolo known to exist from this period.
The passion for illustrating likenesses of beloved animals in collections and menageries arose during the sixteenth century in the courts of Maximilian II and Ferdinand II, but also found a strong foothold during the reign of Rudolf II. The author of the present work seems to have been influenced by the well-established tradition of animal painting flourishing in the Rudolfine court around the turn of the century, and comparisons can be drawn to the watercolors of this period and school depicting a rearing horse and a dappled grey stallion, sold at Sotheby’s, London, 3 July 2013, lots 7 and 9, for £458,500 and £194,500 respectively. In addition to artists such as Joris and Jacob Hoefnagel, Roelandt Savery, who arrived in Prague around 1604, is among the most well-known artist to have worked within this tradition, drawing both on artistic roots laid before him and paving the way for animal artists in generations to come. During his nearly ten year sojourn as court painter to the Emperor Rudolf II, Savery visually feasted on the array of exotic animals in Rudolf II’s collection and menageries, capturing their likeness on both paper and canvas. While he regularly depicted these animals crowded together in paradise landscapes, at times he also executed more individualized portrayals of them, rendered in a manner comparable to that found in the present work. In addition, Savery is known to have made studies of animals in Rudolf's menagerie that he then used in paintings later in his career, even after he left Prague. It is fascinating to note that the same breed of dog found in the present painting, perhaps even the exact same dog, appears in the foreground of a painting dated 1628 ascribed, although not unanimously, to Roelandt Savery of Two Horses and their Grooms (fig. 3).
We are grateful to Dr. Annemarie Jordan Gschwend for her invaluable assistance with the research of this painting, which will be reproduced in her forthcoming book, Hans Khevenhüller at the Court of Philip II of Spain: Diplomacy & Consumerism in a Global Empire (Paul Holberton Publishing, London). We are also grateful to Robert Simon for first identifying the breed of dog portrayed and to John Somerville (Senior Curator, The Lobkowicz Collections, Prague) for first suggesting this work might be of the Prague School.
1. The existence of these documents was made known to us in personal correspondence by Dr. Annemarie Jordan Gschwend.
2. See A. J. Gschwend, “Hans Khevenhüller and Habsburg Menageries in Vienna and Prague,” in Echt Tierisch! Die Menagerie des Fürsten, exhibition catalogue, Vienna 2015, pp. 31-35.
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