Feathered Friends

After the previous post, I was interested to see a short piece over at The New Yorker about basically the same idea—of spotting invasive species in the backgrounds of films and television shows, but, there, applied much more broadly to art history.

The article, by Rebecca Mead, looks at the unexpected presence of a cockatoo in an image by Italian Renaissance-era painter Andrea Mantegna, as the bird’s “native habitat is restricted to Australia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, and the Philippines.” How did it get to 15th-century Italy—and more specifically, Mead asks, “what did the bird’s presence reveal about the connections between an Italian city and distant forests that lay beyond the world known to Europeans?”

[Image: A cockatoo in the background of Andrea Mantegna’s “Madonna della Vittoria” (1496), via Wikimedia.]

It’s a fun read, and includes a final archival detail I’ll mention briefly—I am particularly obsessed with rare finds in archives, to be honest, and this is a good one. It turns out that Mantegna’s painting was not the first depiction of a cockatoo in European art history. Instead, a manuscript hidden away in a Vatican library included an even earlier representation, made in the mid-1200s. Art history as forensic ecology.

Little creatures popping up in paintings and films, in engravings and TV shows, their presence there indicating larger tides of trade or climate change, acting as a strange barometer of the natural world.

(Related: Check the Sonic.)

7 thoughts on “Feathered Friends”

  1. Feathered Friends. An on-screen image of a bird is probably accurate even in this era of computer graphic visuals in films. As a sometime sound editor, I can attest that off-screen bird calls are placed by fallible humans often for the purpose of adding an accent rather than accurately depicting a location. One example, the ubiquitous red-tailed hawk screech heard in films where no red-tailed hawk has ever ranged. In the sound and picture editing world, two directors are noted for their attention to bird detail: Robert Duvall and Terence Malick. Duvall has been known to write a sound editing bird script where the bird calls placed by an editor are accurate and add mood and tone to Duvall’s dramatic interpretation of the scene. Malick went so far as to show a close relative of the now extinct Carolina Parakeet in his film The New World as an indication of the original ecology of what is now the Eastern United States.

  2. For many years there was a Flickr page entirely dedicated to “oriental carpets in Renaissance painting”, and a companion blog that only ran from 2008 and 2009.

    The Flickr page itself is no longer updated, but the sheer amount of work put into it is incredible. It set out to track “350 European paintings created between 1250 and 1550, all containing the common element of the oriental carpet”.


    Oriental carpets and exotic birds: I don’t know if they ever crossed path in European art, but it would be interesting to see if that sort of convergence/crossover ever took place. After all, they tended to come from the same sort of routes (sea or land). Although carpets had a far higher survival rate.

    Not to mention the other archival-forensic layer, this time hidden in the interweaving of weft and warp: exotic bird motifs in Persian and Turkish carpets, that end up in Renaissance paintings before the birds themselves are ever seen in the continent…

  3. Isn’t the red tailed hawks cry the one they use for bald eagles? Bald eagles make a kind of croaking gargling noise. Ben Franklin suggested the wild turkey as the US national bird. Maybe he had a point.

    Another good example is the standard lonely desert cry, usually represented by the cry of the loon, a sea bird.

  4. maybe of interest…. new book Ornithographies, Xavi Bou, Lynx Edicions
    photographes of birds in flight
    A parallel universe….

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