Why Is There a Cockatoo in This Italian Renaissance Painting?

The bird’s presence in the painting lends insight into trade between Europe and Australia in the 15th century

The suspect cockatoo is on the left, perched just above the Virgin's head. Photo: Andrea Mantegna

If you look closely at the Madonna della Vittoria, a Renaissance painting created in 1496 and hanging in the Louvre, you might notice something peculiar. To the left, just above the Virgin Mary's head, sits a sulfur-crested cockatoo. These large white birds are common enough today in petshops and zoos, but in the 15th century, they were an exotic specimen of wildlife found primarily in Indonesia, New Guinea and Australia, the Guardian points out. How, exactly, did that cockatoo finagle its way into an Italian painting? 

Australian historian Heather Dalton first began delving into this mystery ten years ago, when she noticed the bird in a book of Renaissance paintings, the Guardian writes. “Everyone I’ve spoken to on this has said it absolutely is a sulphur-crested cockatoo," she told the Guardian. "It’s taken 10 years because I’ve wanted to be sure.”

The bird, Dalton thinks, is probably a Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo—now endangered but once found in eastern Indonesia, in places like Bali, Timor-Leste, and the Lesser Sunda Islands. At the time Mantegna painted the picture, Dalton points out, that there were no well-established trading routes connecting Europe with this region.* But that doesn't mean the bird couldn't have found its way to Europe the long way, partly by water and partly overland via the Silk Road. This journey, she told the Guardian, would have taken years, but that would have been no problem for a well cared-for cockatoo, since those birds regularly live to be 60 years old.

Or, perhaps, the cockatoo could have reached Italy through trading routes in India and the Middle East. This scenario is particularly plausible because China began cracking down on trade during the Ming Dynasty, beginning in the 1430s, the Guardian writes. Or the bird could have just been sailed to Europe, skipping the overland portion of the hypothetical trip altogether. 

However the cockatoo managed to find its way to Europe, Dalton is pretty sure it was alive and wasn't just copied from the pages of a book. As the Australian writes, "The cockatoo’s natural pose in the painting, with its crest erect, suggests it was painted from life."

*This paragraph has been updated with more details about where in this region the bird may have come from originally.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.