A Sulphur-crested Cockatoo in fifteenth-century Mantua: rethinking symbols of sanctity and patterns of trade


  • This article was developed from a paper for ‘Religion, Nature and Art’, a conference of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture, held in cooperation with the Vatican Museums, Rome, in October 2011. My thanks to Dr Catherine Kovesi and other members of the Early Modern Circle and Medieval Round Table at the University of Melbourne for their support, and to the anonymous readers for their suggestions.


The earliest image of an Australasian parrot by a European artist predates the arrival of Vasco de Gama's fleet at Calicut on the Malabar Coast in 1498. This article focuses on that image – a small but significant detail in Andrea Mantegna's Madonna della Vittoria, completed in Mantua in 1496. Although Mantegna's altarpiece has been the subject of attention in modern scholarship, the significance of the Sulphur-crested Cockatoo has not been explored. In this article, I consider why Mantegna would have included parrots in his altarpiece and the symbolic significance of the cockatoo's position in the composition. I also explore the intriguing issue of how a creature native to regions generally considered to have been beyond Europe's trading reach in 1496 could have appeared in a Renaissance artwork. The Sulphur-crested Cockatoo in the Madonna della Vittoria provides a unique opportunity to place fifteenth-century Italy in its global context. Its presence not only confirms the interests and purchasing power of Mantegna and his patrons, the Gonzagas, it reveals the complexity and range of South-East Asian trading networks prior to the establishment of European trading posts in the region.