Came across an interesting oddity yesterday, The Feather Book. Made in 1618 by Dionisio Minaggio, Chief Gardener of the State of Milan, it is a book depicting 112 birds and 44 human figures, each composed entirely of natural, undyed birds’ feathers. It is separated into 4 sections themed: birds, hunters, tradesmen, musicians and Commedia del’Arte figures. This book contains some of the earliest efforts to depict behavior rather than simply showing birds sitting in profile, and the feathers used are among the oldest preserved samples in existence. Neat. The images themselves strike me as having what we might today call an “outsider art” kind of feeling, whether due to the difficulty inherent in the materials, the meticulous obsessiveness certainly required to complete them, or the apparent lunacy of some of the subjects, I’m not sure. They’re pretty amazing. See below for a sampling.
Feather art was first introduced to Europe by the Spanish explorers who had traveled to Brazil, Mexico and Peru. The majority of these works are ecclesiastical in subject and use tiny feathers to imitate embroidery work. Minaggio uses feathers of different sizes, cut to the appropriate shape and glued to a paper foundation. He seems to have been the only artist who created primarily secular scenes.
Regrettably, very little is known about the history of the Feather Book. It must have taken Minaggio, and possibly his assistants, several years to complete. Most of the birds represented are indigenous to the Milan region but a few (such as the parrots) may have been presented to the Court as gifts, perhaps by a returning explorer. Due to the considerable political chaos of the time the archival records in Milan for that year are poor. We know nothing for certain of the book’s whereabouts between the time of its completion and its probable location in the early 1700s.
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