28 June 2018

The Mystery of the Medieval Manuscript and the Australasian Cockatoo

The recent discovery of four illustrations of a white parrot in a medieval manuscript may seem fairly unimportant, but researchers believe it may re-write the history of global travel and trade.

Left: A sketch from the pages of Arte Venandi cum Avibus Right: A Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo

Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II was a keen collector of exotic animals, and his extensive Falconry Guide Arte Venandi cum Avibus (The Art of Hunting with Birds) had been gathering dust in the Vatican Library since its creation in the 13th Century. Finnish biologists have recently poured over the aged parchment and identified four previously unnoticed sketches seeming to depict the Sulphur-Crested Cocktaoo.

The distinctive white bird with yellow tipped feathers and red eyes is a species native only to the northern tip of Australia, New Guinea and the islands off Indonesia.

Until now, the earliest known depiction of the species in European art was Andrea Mantegna’s 1496 Altarpiece Madonna della Vittoria. The discovery of a native Australasian species in a work of art pre-dating Mantegna’s by at least 250 years forces a radical re-think of the history of global trade.

Researchers are now examining the possibility of a vibrant trading network which brought commodities such as exotic animals from the islands around Australia to the Middle East and beyond. It has been suggested the bird was likely purchased in Cairo and brought to Sicily by the Sultan of Egypt Al- Kamil, who is known to have gifted a parrot to the Emperor.

The presence of animals and plants from one continent in the art of another plays a key role in the exploration of their shared history. Creatures depicted can be explanatory sketches, botanical studies, or imagined mythical hybrids. The study of these artworks can provoke revelatory discoveries – as the story above shows - or can simply provoke further tantalising questions.

Inspired by the curious qualities of birds in antique art, we’ve tracked down the most intriguing specimens currently available at Grays.

Chinese Pith Paper Painting Depicting Chinese Birds on Rocks with Flowering Japonica.
19th Century. Available at Guest and Gray
German Solid Silver Parrot. 20th Century. Available at Pushkin Antiques

Chinese Framed Rank Badge, Depicting a Crane with Crysanthenum. 18th Century. Available at Guest and Gray.

Corinthian Jug Depicting Mythical Bird Hybrid, Greece or Italy, 6th Century. Available at Guest and Gray

Iranian Safavid Kendi Depicting Birds and Foliage, 17th Century. Available at Anita Gray

European Art Nouveau Bird of Paradise Brooch, Silver and Enamel, 18th Century. Available at Moira Fine Jewellery

Asprey Silver-Gilt Parrot on Malachite Stand, c1980. Available at Pushkin Antiques

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