Mystery of the Cockatoo

Andrea Mantegna’s 1496 painting, Madonna della Vittoria, and, inset, the sulphur-crested cockatoo.

Andrea Mantegna’s 1496 painting, Madonna della Vittoria, and, inset, the sulphur-crested cockatoo.

With its religious iconography and ornate throne, the 15th century painting Madonna della Vittoria by Andrea Mantegna seems a typical Italian Renaissance work – apart, that is, from the appearance of an Australasian cockatoo in the background.

The discovery of an animal more closely associated with suburban Sydney than Venice is leading historians into a rethink of early trading networks into Europe.

The painting, completed by Mantegna in 1496 and now hanging in the Louvre, clearly shows what appears to be a sulphur-crested cockatoo perched above Mary, mother of Jesus. It is unclear how Mantegna included a bird found in New Guinea and Australia, given that trading routes to Europe were not clearly established at the time.

Dr. Heather Dalton, a historian at the University of Melbourne, first noticed the presence of the cockatoo ten years ago and has been working to confirm the bird’s identity for an analysis that has now been published.

“I was flicking through a book of paintings and thought ‘what is that?’” she said. “Other art historians noted it was unusual but didn’t really explore it. Everyone I’ve spoken to on this has said it absolutely is a sulphur-crested cockatoo. It’s taken ten years because I’ve wanted to be sure.”

Dalton said Mantegna could have somehow obtained a picture of a cockatoo to copy but there is good reason to believe he had a live bird.

“It’s so realistic, looking straight ahead at you, relaxed,” she said. “This is unusual because later paintings of cockatoos in the 17th century showed them sideways, with the crest erect, because they were dead. These cockatoos can live for more than 60 years so it could’ve lasted the journey along the Silk Road routes, which would’ve taken years. It would’ve been included as a symbol of luxury and to show the wealth of the family who commissioned it.”

Dalton said there is no other evidence of cockatoos in Europe at this time, although other parrots were venerated at the time as being second only to humans in the animal kingdom due to their ability to talk.

The cockatoo could have been transported from Australia or eastern Indonesia via China, altering what was previously known of trading routes to Europe.

“We know sea cucumbers were traded from the 17th century from Arnhem land but not the area where these cockatoos were,” said Dalton. “The Ming Dynasty in China in the 1430s curtailed trade which forced traders to look to trade into India and the Middle East, which could then go on to Venice. This could explain why the cockatoo got to Venice. Whether it’s from Australia or Timor, it still challenges everything we know. I think lots of people will be looking at these paintings more closely now.”

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