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Where did that cockatoo come from?

Where Did That Cockatoo Come From?, The New Yorker, 28 June 2021

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.

Parrots were initially incorporated into European art mainly because of their exotic allure. But by the Renaissance parrots were appearing in Christian-themed portraiture because of symbolic links with Mary: among other things, the bird’s improbable ability to talk was seen as comparable to the Virgin’s ability to become pregnant. In the early sixteenth century, several years after Mantegna painted his altarpiece, Albrecht Dürer made an ink-and-watercolor study in which a parrot perches on a wooden post near the Madonna and Child. Dürer was fascinated by parrots, and he eventually acquired some, on a visit to a trading hub in the Netherlands. “Madonna with Child and Parrots,” a 1533 work by the German artist Hans Baldung Grien, shows Mary with a frowning infant Jesus at her breast. A green parakeet stands near Jesus’ foot, and a gray parrot balances on Mary’s shoulder, its mouth open. The composition suggests that Grien was less familiar with parrots than Dürer was: given that parrots eat nuts and have beaks with the biting force required to crack shells, the gray bird’s beak is disconcertingly close to Mary’s face.

Verdi included Mantegna’s “Madonna della Vittoria” in his catalogue essay, noting the presence of what he characterized as a lesser sulfur-crested cockatoo, and remarking on its estimable position in the painting, above the figure of the Virgin. But Verdi did not linger on the implications of the bird’s geographical origin, even though the cockatoo species he named lives only in the southeastern islands of Indonesia.

When Heather Dalton started researching the Mantegna work, she found that other scholars had noted the peculiarity of such a creature appearing in a Renaissance art work—among them, Bruce Thomas Boehrer, a professor of English at Florida State University, whose 2004 book, “Parrot Culture,” offers a lively popular account of “our 2500-year-long fascination with the world’s most talkative bird.” But it seemed that nobody had considered the larger resonances. What had a cockatoo signified to Andrea Mantegna, or to Francesco II Gonzaga, one of the most powerful men of his time? And 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?

Dalton, who was born in Essex, did not turn to academic history until she was in her forties. Her first degree, from the University of Manchester, was in American studies. She moved to Australia in the mid-eighties, having married a man from the country who had been working in The Hague. Before departing for the Southern Hemisphere, they took a road trip around Europe and stopped off in Mantua. Dalton visited the palace, which served as home to the noble Gonzaga family for nearly four hundred years. Its patriarch, Ludovico I Gonzaga, began ruling the city in 1328. Inside the palace, Dalton saw the works of Mantegna for the first time, and admired the lavish frescoes that he had executed for the Camera degli Sposi in the fourteen-sixties and seventies—his most important commission for the Gonzaga family, for whom he was the court painter.

In Australia, Dalton initially worked in publishing and in journalism. To mark the 1988 bicentenary of the establishment of a British penal colony in Australia, she wrote a number of articles on Australian history, including one about the country’s vigorous trade in bêche-de-mer, or sea cucumber. For centuries, the bêche-de-mer—which is a lumpy, sluglike creature related to the starfish—was harvested off the northern coast of Australia and then sold in Chinese markets, where it was regarded as a delicacy. In 2002, Dalton, by then a postgraduate student in history, returned to the subject. The fishermen, who had gathered sea cucumbers in shallow waters, had formed one end of a significant mercantile link between coastal Australia and Asia, but they had been largely overlooked in the narrative of Australia’s national founding, which, she said, favored “the digger, the pastoralist, and the drover.” (The song “Waltzing Matilda” commemorates an itinerant sheep-station worker.) Dalton, for her dissertation, wrote about a Tudor trader, Roger Barlow, who travelled around England, Spain, and South America; in 2016, she expanded the work into a book, “Merchants and Explorers.” She told me, “I was very interested in the idea that everything is about trade and economics, and the idea that we make discoveries for some national reason is something that you claim afterward.”

The cockatoo in the Mantegna painting reminded Dalton of her work on the bêche-de-mer. Both animals were clearly part of a bustling, poorly documented trade in luxuries. The cockatoo in Mantegna’s altarpiece, like parrots in other Renaissance art works, had a clear religious symbolism, but it also signalled the worldly matter of the Gonzagas’ immense wealth—bling with feathers. The rarity of the bird can be deduced from its singular occurrence in the altarpiece: Dalton could not find another cockatoo in works by Mantegna, or in those of his contemporaries. Although she acknowledges that the cockatoo may be a representation of a representation—say, a copy of an image imported from parts east—she argues that the bird’s detailed appearance strongly indicates it was drawn from life. Old Master paintings of cockatoos from the seventeenth century onward typically show the bird in profile, with its crest maximally displayed, as a taxidermy specimen would be arranged. On Mantegna’s canvas, the bird faces forward. It therefore holds the viewer’s eye, just as a curious, intelligent bird that began life in a distant tropical forest might gaze at a painter standing before an easel.

An inventory of objects owned by one of Mantegna’s sons made note of a large copper birdcage, but Dalton was otherwise unable to find any documentary evidence of either Mantegna or the Gonzagas having acquired a cockatoo. Yet it was plausible, she thought, that the parrot had arrived in Mantua by way of Venice, ninety miles east, where merchants were engaged in exporting glass and ceramics and in importing luxury items. In the Renaissance Studies essay, she noted, “Wealthy citizens of Italian city-states buying such goods may have appreciated their rarity, but understood little of their geographical origins.” Wares arriving in Venetian markets would have changed hands many times during their journey: “A parrot, like an artwork, may have had a succession of owners as it was traded West towards Europe.” Dalton cited a handful of Italian traders who, in the fifteenth century, ventured as far east as Java and the Moluccas, where, she suggests, they might have encountered Chinese merchants plying established trading routes still farther east—and scooped up a prestigious parrot along the way. More likely, she thinks, the cockatoo may not have reached European hands until much closer to the end of its westward journey. Some birds travel very poorly: Barlow, the Tudor trader, attempted to bring a hummingbird back to Europe from the Americas, and ended up transporting a corpse. But a sulfur-crested cockatoo, especially one accustomed to human company, would have been more resilient—and, as a valuable commodity, it would have been well cared for.

Dalton told me that she now believes the cockatoo was probably transported largely by sea—not in a single epic voyage across the Indian Ocean but in a series of trips in small boats which hugged the coast of India and Arabia. Yet it remains a mystery how, precisely, the cockatoo painted by Mantegna reached Mantua.

For good reason, Dalton expected her paper to be the final word on cockatoos in early European art. But, not long after its publication, she learned that her extraordinary discovery had been trumped. However Mantegna’s cockatoo came to Italy, it was not the first bird of its kind to have made the crossing. It had been preceded by another cockatoo, two and a half centuries earlier.

In the late nineteen-eighties, Finnish researchers, led by a zoologist named Pekka Niemelä, gained unusual access to a rare manuscript in the collection of the Vatican Library, “De Arte Venandi cum Avibus,” or “On the Art of Hunting with Birds.” The book, attributed to Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, was made between 1241 and 1244. The Vatican’s manuscript, which is in two volumes, was compiled by Frederick’s son Manfred more than a decade later, after the original work was lost during the Battle of Parma. The manuscript passed through the hands of several eminent noblemen and intellectuals before entering the papal collection, in 1622. Written in Latin, it contains hundreds of drawings of birds, and is of particular interest to scientists because it represents a strikingly early attempt at empirical zoology. Frederick II was a keen scientist, with a fascination for the animal kingdom and the human body. Reputedly, he once had a dying man sealed up in an airtight wine vat, in order to observe whether a person’s soul perished along with his body. He is also said, perhaps apocryphally, to have had surgeons cut open the bellies of two men who had been fed a large meal, to see if the one who had been made to exercise after eating had digested his food more efficiently than the one who had napped before being subjected to postprandial slaughter.

While looking at reproductions of “De Arte Venandi cum Avibus,” Niemelä had noticed the presence, among images of hawks, of a cockatoo with white plumage. The bird was featured in four of the manuscript’s illustrations. “It was really, really shocking to see them,” Niemelä told me. Thanks to the intercession of Simo Örmä, an academic at the Finnish Institute in Rome, Niemelä and a zoologist colleague, Jukka Salo, were granted permission to see the manuscript, under the watchful eye of the head librarian. The scholars concluded that the four images were of the same bird, and, by examining the remains of pigment on the ancient pages, they ascertained the original creature’s coloring. They could also make an educated guess at the cockatoo’s gender: female, as indicated by reddish flecks in the iris of its eye. The cockatoo, they surmised, was either a subspecies of the sulfur-crested cockatoo or one of its close relatives, the yellow-crested cockatoo. This narrowed the bird’s origin down to New Guinea or adjacent islands.

After the publication of Dalton’s paper, Niemelä sent her an e-mail. Dalton, who had received a lot of odd queries about her work, initially dismissed the message. “I saw the name Pekka, and my paper was about a bird, and I thought it was a joke,” she told me. Finally, she read Niemelä’s note, and contacted him with excitement. Niemelä, Salo, and Örmä had not managed to publish their findings, but now, in collaboration with Dalton, they set about exploring more definitively the provenance and the significance of Frederick II’s cockatoo. In 2018, they published a paper, in the medieval studies journal Parergon, proposing that this bird most likely arrived in the cosmopolitan markets of Cairo after a journey from China, to which it would have been traded from somewhere in Australasia.

Their deduction was grounded in more than speculation: unlike Mantegna’s bird, Frederick’s cockatoo has a contemporaneous paper trail. The text accompanying one of the cockatoo images comments on the appearance of various parrots in the royal collection, one of which was characterized as having “white feathers and quills, changing to yellow under the sides,” and was said to have been “sent to us by the Sultan of Babylon”—the ruler of Egypt, Al-Malik al-Kāmil. As Dalton and her co-authors wrote, al-Kāmil had extensive links with a network of traders extending from China and India across central Asia. Frederick’s text also observes that parrots can “imitate the human voice and the words they hear most frequently.” It’s tempting to imagine that the Emperor’s cockatoo learned greetings, or curses, in different languages during its journey; unfortunately, Frederick’s scribe failed to note any polyglot repertoire, which might have provided further clues about the bird’s path.

The cockatoo was one of many animals that Frederick and al-Kāmil exchanged during a period of years, with what appears to be ever-increasing effort to impress each other. One of Frederick’s first gifts to al-Kāmil, Dalton and her co-authors reported, was horses equipped with golden stirrups encrusted with gems. Al-Kāmil, in turn, sent Frederick an even more wondrous gift, an elephant. For a medieval monarch, maintaining a menagerie fulfilled a function similar to the one an art collection plays for a modern-day plutocrat: it was a show of power and prestige. A particularly rare beast—say, a white peacock or a white bear, both of which Frederick sent to al-Kāmil—provided much the same cachet that a prime Basquiat would today. Among al-Kāmil’s gifts to Frederick was a gyrfalcon, a splendid bird of prey that originates in the Arctic and North America, and likely came from Iceland, then almost at the northwestern edge of European exploration. A white cockatoo with a greenish crest would have represented an equally resplendent gift—a rare bird retrieved from an almost inconceivable corner of the world.

Unlike gyrfalcons, which can cover enormous distances at a high speed, the sulfur-crested cockatoo does not travel far, unless driven by drought or wrested from its home by human intervention. A bird born on one island typically stays on that island for the rest of its life. Sulfur-crested cockatoos are social and companionable creatures: in early adulthood, they select a mate, and partner for life. The Europeans who first beheld such a strange creature in their midst must have been astonished by it. One can’t help wondering how the bird experienced the encounter.

Jukka Salo, the zoologist, helped me imagine the bird’s-eye view of a journey across Asia. He reflected on what the cockatoo might have experienced as it was taken from its home and transported from one place to another. Most likely, he said, the cockatoo would have been removed from its nest—a hole in a tree in a forest—when it was only a few weeks old, perhaps along with one other chick hatched from the same clutch of eggs. The hand that grasped it probably belonged to a seasoned hunter, who would have known the bird’s value, and also would have understood the optimal age at which to steal it: when the bird was old enough to survive without parental care but young enough to adapt to human company. Older birds are far less amenable to captivity. Salo told me that a trip to Italy “would have been very stressful.” The cockatoo may have spent months at sea, in storage, or it may have travelled in a camel caravan across the landmass of Asia. Salo said, “It would have been harsh travel—the most difficult time of the bird’s life.” Frederick’s and Mantegna’s cockatoos may have achieved pictorial immortality, but they themselves are not examples of what historians now call “material culture.” They were living beings from long ago, as difficult to imagine as a land beyond the land we think we know. ♦