An Australasian cockatoo in an Italian Renaissance painting is forcing historians to rethink their understanding of 15th-century trading networks.
A sulphur-crested cockatoo, a species native to Australia and eastern Indonesia, is visible in the 1496 painting Madonna della Vittoria by Andrea Mantegna.
But it’s unclear how the artist knew of the animal’s existence as its habitat was considered beyond Europe’s trading reach at the time.
An analysis of the painting by Dr Heather Dalton, from the University of Melbourne’s School of Historical and Philosophical Sciences, suggests it’s likely the parrot was transported from Australasia to Europe.
“The colours of the bird are right, everything is right about it (in the painting), whereas the first portrayals of Australian parrots were often a bit lumpy and odd-looking because taxidermy was rudimentary until the 17th and 18th century,” says Dr Dalton, who has been studying the painting and the cockatoo’s significance for 10 years.
If it wasn’t a live cockatoo that made its way from Australasia to Europe and into the hands of Mantegna, then it must have been a “very, very, very realistic sketch,” she says.
Dr Dalton believes the cockatoo originated from Indonesia, rather than Australia, because of its smaller size.
“I think it’s a sulphur-crested cockatoo that has come from Indonesia; they’re a bit smaller than Australian sulphur-crested cockatoos, but exactly the same in every other way.”
Dr Dalton, whose studies will be published in the academic journal Renaissance Studies, says the bird’s presence in the Renaissance painting suggests there were “complex and far-ranging Southeast Asian trading networks in our region prior to the arrival of Europeans”.
The cockatoo’s presence in the religious painting, she says, was a symbol of luxury as well as sacredness.
“Parrots were very rare and expensive, so putting parrots in a painting, the artist, Mantegna, is emphasising the wealth and (cosmopolitan nature) of the Gonzagas, the family who commissioned him to paint the piece,” she says.
“And because parrots could speak, they were seen by many as closer to God than any other to animal.”
To have a parrot in a religious painting is not unusual, says Dr Dalton, however what is significant is the positioning of the cockatoo in Mantegna’s piece.
The cockatoo appears to be in a “privileged” position because it sits above the Virgin Mary and above the Cross.
“If you look at other paintings with parrots and the Virgin Mary, they are always at her elbow or lower than her,” she said.