Exotic animals were among the many strange sights which could be seen in Venice. The 1751 Carnival had one such curiosity: Clara, the rhinoceros, brought to Venice by the Dutch sea captain Douvemont van der Meer. The event was commemorated by Pietro Longhi who shows Clara eating from a straw bale while seven spectators, some with carnival masks, watch the show and the keeper brandishes the horn which Clara had lost in Rome along with a whip. After being exhibited in Venice, the rhinoceros spent the last leg of her nearly twenty-year tour in England and in 1758, a London newspaper carried the following advertisement: ‘“To be seen, at The Horse and Groom in Lambeth-Market, the surprising, great and noble animal called Rinoceros alive”. Shortly afterwards she died and her body dissected. Exciting great interest from scientists, she remained a curiosity even after her death.
Less well known is the Venetians’ long-time fascination with elephants. Not only, as Byron records, were elephants employed during the Carnival’s festivities and masquerades, but they were also considered a by-word for Justice, Memory and Strength. The fact that the symbol of Venice is the Lion may explain the bizarre way that elephants are sometimes depicted in Venetian art with lion’s paws, as in a statue of angel walking alongside a baby elephant, which is in a small courtyard near Florian’s Café, and the same motif can be seen in a Byzantine carving on the right wall of Ca' D'Oro's balcony facing the Grand Canal. Elephants also appear around the base of the flagpoles in St Mark’s Square.
In 1819 an elephant performed at the Carnival on the Riva degli Schiavoni, but escaped from his cage and “ate up a fruit shop, killed his keeper, and broke into a church”. He was shot and buried on the Lido.