Fall 2015

Leftovers / Birds of a Feather

The baroque bestiary of a Milanese gardener

Jeffrey Kastner

“Leftovers” is a column that investigates the cultural significance of detritus.

An artifact poised uncannily between thing and representation, the early seventeenth-century volume known as the “Feather Book of Dionisio Minaggio” is a virtually unique example of secular featherwork from the European Baroque era. Created by Minaggio in 1618 during his tenure as chief gardener to the Spanish governor of the Duchy of Milan, Pedro de Toledo Osorio, the book comprises 112 images of birds created entirely from feathers and other body parts—in most cases, their very own—such as beaks, claws, and skin. (An additional 44 images, similarly fashioned from feathers, primarily feature depictions of leading actors from the city’s commedia dell’arte companies.) Although traditions of elaborate artworks, clothing, and ceremonial attire made from feathers were not uncommon in other parts of the world during this period—especially among Central and South American cultures—there were few examples of ars plumaria made in Europe at the time. Minaggio’s book, beyond its obvious value as an extraordinary work of folk art, also constitutes a rare illustrated record of both avifauna and Milanese theater culture at the beginning of the 1600s.[1]

Pages from the “Feather Book.” The Italian inscription on the frontispiece (opposite, top left) reads: “Dionisio Minaggio, gardener to His Excellency the Governor of Milan, was the creator, and he made [this book] in the year 1618.” All images courtesy McGill University Library.

The genesis of Minaggio’s project is uncertain. Almost nothing is known of the gardener’s life and the provenance of the book itself is murky until it appears in an inventory of the collection of the British naturalist Taylor White in the mid-eighteenth century. Held since the early twentieth century by McGill University in Montreal, the Feather Book was originally bound in oak boards covered in leather, although university librarians disassembled it in the 1960s for conservation purposes and eventually mounted the pages individually behind glass.

Each of the bird illustrations was created by gluing the body parts and feathers of the birds to sheets of paper, which were then attached to support sheets roughly twelve inches by nineteen inches in size. Many pages include a caption in Minaggio’s own hand identifying the bird; a number feature additional scenography such as trees, buildings, and human figures. Although the colors have in some cases faded and the anatomical elements of the birds show occasional damage, many remain in remarkably vivid condition. In one, a kestrel and a siskin perch in a tree above a solider guarding the door to a church, the tip of his lance made from tiny sapphire plumes; in another, a hawklike hobby clutches a branch above a complex of structures, including a castle, a church, and a mill complete with waterwheel and flowing blue stream. Though rare for the conventions of avian illustration at the time, a few of Minaggio’s birds are even shown in flight—in one image, an awkwardly soaring tern looks as though it’s about to crash into the small houses below. And while most of the birds depicted do seem to be Lombard in origin, the collection also includes a handful of exotic specimens, such as an Amazonian parrot and even, in one image, what resembles—and in a later hand, attended by a tentative question mark, is identified as—a dodo.

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