Il Bestario Barocco: The Feather Book

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.

From the Lichomezi or Comedians section. This is Leander a celebrated “lover” played by actor Benedetto Ricci of the “Fedeli” company.

From the Tradesmen section. The apron and brush attached around his waist indicate this may be a chimney sweep. He is leaning on a staff and playing a flute while waiting for his dog to finish defecating. There is a small finch perched on the top of the tree.

From the Birds section. The Rooster (Gallus gallus)

From Comedians. Chocholi (Cocolin) better known as Magnifico or Pantolone, was the stock character of the old man who makes a fool of himself by chasing after a young girl or by his excessive suspiciousness or miserliness.

From the Hunters section. A man with a three-pronged pike for boar hunting.

From Birds. A woman carries a basket in her right hand and balances another, on which a Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis), perched on her head.

From Birds. A Hobby (Falco subbbuteo). The landscape shows a waterfall flowing through an crenellated building down to a mill and bridge, as well as a church with belfry, and a fortress with a tower.

From Hunters. A hunter returning from a rabbit hunt, carrying his catch on a pole and leading a hunting dog on a leash.

From Tradesmen. Standing on a table between an open coffer and his professional insignia - an enormous tooth hanging from a pole - a dentist holds up the tooth he has just extracted from a suffering patient, who sits holding a blood-stained cloth to his face.

From Birds. There is an Italian Sparrow (Passer italiae) at the top, a Great Tit (Parus major) on the left and the Long-tailed Tit (Aegithalos caudatus) on the lower right.

From Birds. A Golden Oriole (Oriolus oriolus) in a tree overlooks a man fishing with a pole.

From Hunters. A hunter shooting an arquebus at a duck swimming in the river.

From Comedians. Chola Napolitane was a clown figure created by Aniello di Maure of whom this is probably a portrait. Coloo is dancing while making clownish facial expressions. This is an example of the clownish character of the Commedia de11 ‘Arte.

From Hunters. A man loading an arquebus for duck hunting. The dog has already retrieved a Mallard. Two ducks are flying overhead.

From Birds. A landscape showing a group of buildings under three entwined trees. This is the only picture in the collection that does not contain any birds or people.

All of the images from the book are digitized and on display in large scale at the McGill Library Page: Il Bestario Barocco. Some further information is available here. Hope you enjoyed.

06.23. filed under: art. !. books. history. 4