Once I gave it a little thought, I realized that there was no way Manuel was traveling with a retinue that included cheetahs and their handlers. Manuel was humiliatingly poor. He had to leave his family in Monemvasia because the Turks were besieging Constantinople and the City was threatened with starvation. When he got to Venice to ask for help, he had to borrow money for his trip to France. In France and England he depended on the kindness of strangers, and on his way home his Venetian creditors held up his passage for five weeks until repayment terms were arranged. When he got home, he sent thank-you presents of a family portrait and pieces of the assorted relics in the keeping of the imperial family. It had been a long time since the Eastern Empire could afford to send silks and jeweled crosses and golden chalices for gifts.
Which made me rethink John's trip to Ferrara-Florence in 1437-39 and the likelihood of his taking along any cheetahs. Despite my enthusiasm last week, no likelihood whatsoever. He and nearly 700 Greeks traveled on Venetian ships, going and returning in winter. When John got to the Morea, he disembarked -- he hated ships -- rode by land across the peninsula and reboarded on the other side. He, too, was depending on the kindness of strangers to pay for the trip. He didn't take any horses on the ships, and when he got to Ferrara he had to buy them from the Russian delegation so he could hunt. The Italians complained about his hunting and the damage it did to the peasant farms, but no one mentioned the hunting leopards, and no one depicted them at the time. If he had had leopards, Pisanello would have shown them to us. Pisanello loved drawing animals, even cows.
But apparently just about every Italian court had its own contingent of exotic animals, and apparently everyone hunted with hunting leopards. So by the time Gozzoli was hired to paint his Three Kings with last week's lovely Medici-boy-and-cheetah, he painted some of the animals the Medici had in stock.
John did have access to large spotted cats. Cyriaco wrote about hunting with John in 1444:
Others, the leading citizens and those superior in courage, of course, with the princes themselves, moved rapidly through pathless forests to high hills, [armed] with many hunting spears, weapons, and dogs in pursuit of straight-horned stags, foaming boars, tawny lions, or spotted panthers.I suspect that at some point the straightened palace budget had required that the resident hunting-leopards be released into the hunting areas. In fact, I would now doubt that Sophia's welcoming procession even included the required hunting-leopards.