At the top of Dürer’s 1515 print is inscribed in German a description of the rhino based on Pliny the Elder in his Naturalis Historia (AD 23-79). It includes the word “abconderfet” – as taken from the Latin imago contrafacta, meaning an accurate copy of an absent original – a copy that bears witness. As Dürer never saw the creature, and while this term usually refers to a drawing, in this instance the rhino itself is the absent source. Thus in the production and reproduction of this print, a chain of images were produced as imago contrafacta, witnesses to an unseen form.
In relation to this term, Peter Parshall (1993: 555) writes of how the Renaissance distinction evident in curiosity cabinets between artificia and naturalia is indicative of an attitude that distinguished nature from human manufacture, and how this translated visually into a division between invention and objective recording. The term Contrafactum was introduced as an image as a bearer of fact – a “class of representation that came to be determined by function … for images reporting specific events, and for portrayals of both natural and preternatural phenomena” (556). The term was associated with the counterfeit, which counter to the contemporary understanding of the word, stood as a legitimate, genuine copy of a prototype – a proxy of sorts. This concept was most prevalent in Germany (abconterfeit) and was commonly associated with portraiture – the image as a surrogate for the sitter. Durer, in his notes, frequently used the term to denote “portrayal” used Conterfeit to denote ‘portrayal’, yet it also means to make an image ‘after’ or to produce a replica (ibid 561). While he does not claim to have seen the rhino himself, his use of terminology in the inscription is somewhat ambiguous. Texts often accompanied the image to give empirical evidence of the context in which the image was made: the image is testimony to an event – the print a witness of history. In Dürer’s print the term claims reliable and direct witness as to the veracity of the creature’s appearance (absent), yet at the same time the word can be used to denote a faithful copy: a copy either of a reproduction or an experience.
Reference: Parshall, P. 1993. Art History. Vol 16. No 4. pp 554-579