Mysterious Appearances Of Non-Migratory Birds

Andrea Mantegna’s “Madonna della Vittoria” was completed in Italy in 1496. Art work from © RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

Rebecca Mead, whose last appearance in our pages was referred to just yesterday, explores a five-century old mystery involving birds that is a fun half-hour read, especially but not exclusively for bird nerds:

Where Did That Cockatoo Come From?

Birds native to Australasia are being found in Renaissance paintings—and in medieval manuscripts. Their presence exposes the depth of ancient trade routes.

Madonna della Vittoria,” by the Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna, must have looked imposing when it was first installed as an altarpiece in Santa Maria della Vittoria, a small chapel in the northern-Italian city of Mantua. The painting, which was commissioned by the city’s ruler, Francesco II Gonzaga, was completed in 1496, and measures more than nine feet in height. A worshipper’s eye likely lingered on its lower half—where the Virgin, seated on a marble pedestal, bestows a blessing on the kneeling, armored figure of Francesco—instead of straining to discern the intricacies of its upper half, which depicts a pergola bedecked with hanging ornaments and fruited vines. In the late eighteenth century, Napoleon’s forces looted the painting and transported it to the Louvre, where it now occupies a commanding spot in the Denon wing.

When Heather Dalton, a British-born historian who lives in Melbourne, Australia, took a moment to examine the painting some years ago, during her first year of study for a doctorate at the University of Melbourne, she was not in Paris but at home, leafing through a book about Mantegna. Although the Madonna image had been reproduced at a fraction of its true size, Dalton noticed something that she well might have missed had she been peering up at the framed original: perched on the pergola, directly above a gem-encrusted crucifix on a staff, was a slender white bird with a black beak, an alert expression, and an impressive greenish-yellow crest. Moreover, without the context of her own surroundings, Dalton might not have registered the bird’s incongruity. “If I hadn’t been in Australia, I wouldn’t have thought, That’s a bloody sulfur-crested cockatoo!” she told me.

The sulfur-crested cockatoo is a sizable bird, about twenty inches tall when full grown. It has mostly white feathers on its body and, atop its head, a distinctive swoosh of citrine plumage, which fans upward in moments of excitement or agitation—looking like the avian equivalent of a dyed-and-sprayed Mohawk. Cockatoos, a kind of parrot, are a familiar presence throughout northern and eastern Australia, where they live in parks and in wooded areas. To some people, the cockatoo is a squawking pest that can damage a building’s timbers with its beak; to others, the bird is a cherished companion. In captivity, sulfur-crested cockatoos can learn to mimic human speech, and some have been known to live for more than eighty years. There’s a national pride in the bird: it appears on the Australian ten-dollar bill.

Cockatoos are nonmigratory, and their native habitat is restricted to Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Philippines. Most of the twenty-odd species of cockatoo originate east of the Wallace Line—a boundary, established in the mid-nineteenth century by Charles Darwin’s sometime collaborator Alfred Russel Wallace, that runs through both the strait separating Borneo from Sulawesi and the strait dividing Bali from Lombok. In Wallace’s book “The Malay Archipelago,” about the studies he undertook there, in the mid-eighteen-hundreds, he wrote, “To the ordinary Englishman this is perhaps the least known part of the globe. Our possessions in it are few and scanty; scarcely any of our travelers go to explore it; and in many collections of maps it is almost ignored.” Wallace noted the absence in Australia of pheasants and woodpeckers, birds common on other continents, and wrote that the area’s cockatoos were among those species “found nowhere else upon the globe.”

Although goods from these regions sometimes entered Europe in the centuries before Wallace’s explorations, little was understood about their place of origin, or about how they moved westward. Even present-day scholarship of what is now called the Global Middle Ages—between 500 and 1500—has paid only glancing attention to Australasia, in part because of a dearth of written records of trade or other forms of cultural exchange with the continent. In a recent book, “The Year 1000,” the scholar Valerie Hansen points out that the direction of ocean currents in and around Southeast Asia makes it much easier for boats to go south—as the archeological record shows they did, to Australia, fifty thousand years ago—than to travel north. She writes that, before the fourteenth or fifteenth century, the people of Australia and Indonesia had very limited contact with people in continental Southeast Asia.

Before Dalton put down the Mantegna book, she asked herself, “How did a bird from Australasia end up in a fifteenth-century Italian painting?” After researching the question for a decade, she published a paper in the journal Renaissance Studies, in 2014, about the cockatoo’s unlikely appearance. She argued that the bird’s presence on Mantegna’s canvas illuminated the sophistication of ancient trade routes between Australasia and the rest of the world, concluding that Mantegna’s cockatoo most likely originated in the southeastern reaches of the Indonesian archipelago—east of Bali, perhaps on Timor or Sulawesi. The revisionist force of Dalton’s work attracted attention from many news outlets, including the Guardian and Smithsonian. In Australia, one newspaper came up with the irresistible headline “Picture Points to Renaissance Budgie-Smugglers.” (“Budgie-smuggler” is the preferred local term for a Speedo.)

The Mantegna painting isn’t the only image from the Renaissance that provides hints of at least indirect contact with Australasia. An ink-and-watercolor work by the Flemish artist Joris Hoefnagel, made around 1561 and now in the collection of the Getty, shows a furry gray creature seated on a gilded throne, gnawing on a branch. The work is titled “A Sloth,” but Dalton speculates that it may depict a New Guinean tree kangaroo.

Dalton’s work not only offers visual confirmation that the world has been interconnected for far longer than many people have supposed; it also offers a reminder of the value of a fresh eye. A historian interested in European art who lives on the opposite end of the earth from the Louvre saw a familiar object from an unfamiliar angle—and registered something that hardly any onlooker had registered before.

“Parrots are the nearest birds come to being little human beings wrapped in feathers,” Richard Verdi, a former director of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, in Birmingham, England, wrote in the catalogue to “The Parrot in Art,” an exhibition mounted at the museum in 2007. Parrots, which can be found across the globe but are not native to Europe, have been considered remarkable for millennia. Verdi’s essay noted that Alexander the Great acquired one from the Punjab in 327 B.C.; the admiral of his fleet, Nearchus, declared that the bird’s ability to speak was miraculous. The Greeks prized the beauty and the intelligence of parrots from India, which had established overland trade routes with Europe in antiquity; Aristotle remarked that the birds were good mimics, and noted that they were “even more outrageous after drinking wine.”

Soon enough, parrots began showing up in European art. There are several representations of the bird in frescoes and mosaics found in the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, including in a painting that is now lost but was documented by an engraving made in the eighteenth century: it depicted a parrot harnessed to a chariot driven by a grasshopper, which held a set of reins in its mandibles…

Read the whole article here.

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