Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)
Office of the Vice-Principal (Research)

The Ostrich: An Unexpected Allegory


Dr. Melinda Knox looking at large books

D’Elia carried out much of her research for Raphael’s Ostrichwhile a Fellow of the Villa I Tatti, the Harvard Center for Italian Renaissance Studies in Florence, Italy. This prestigious fellowship, granted annually to only 15 Renaissance scholars around the world, allowed her access to rich resources such as the Biblioteca Berenson and notoriously difficult-to-access spaces such as the Bibbiena Apartments in the Vatican. She is pictured here in the WD Jordan Library Special Collections and Music Library at Queen’s, which contains a number of rare, early printed ornithological and architectural treatises with splendid woodcut illustrations.

painting of Raphael's Lady Justice

Raphael’s oil mural Lady Justice in the Sala di Costantino, Vatican Palace, 1519-20. Replacing the traditional sword in Justice’s hand with a naturalistically-painted ostrich, Raphael paints an enigma. The ostrich had meant many things in the Middle Ages and Antiquity, but not justice. Instead, Raphael’s invention is based upon a Renaissance understanding of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. In ancient Egypt, the soul’s passage to the underworld was determined by weighing the heart against an ostrich feather, and so the hieroglyph for justice is an ostrich tail feather. Raphael brought this arcane hieroglyph to life and playfully hid the tail, forcing the viewer to search for the meaning. Justice is labeled, but what is the bizarre exotic bird doing in the halls of power of the Vatican?

Painting called Sala degli Acrobati

Cesare Baglione and others, grotesques, detail with an ostrich, fresco, Sala degli Acrobati, Castello di Torrechiara, 1583. The nail-eating ostrich is at home among the hybrid monsters and delicate fantasies of grotesques, a classically inspired form of decoration that was also spearheaded by Raphael earlier in the century. The flightless, huge, heavy bird is made impossibly light, supported only by a piece of cloth delicately draped between two likewise floating supports – a real creature transformed into an airy daydream.

The ostrich, the world’s largest and heaviest bird, is quite a curious looking creature with its long and skinny neck, small head, prominent eyes and legs that seem to go on for miles. For centuries, the strange form and habits of this flightless bird known as the Struthio camelus or “sparrow camel” both baffled and amazed ancient, medieval, and Renaissance scientists who encountered it. They viewed the peculiar creature as a hybrid – half bird, half beast.

For the past few years, associate professor of art history Dr. Una D’Elia has been on an ostrich hunt throughout most of Italy and other parts of Europe. Exploring museums, palaces, places of worship and archives, she has uncovered dozens of images of the exotic bird. This may seem like a curious quest, but D’Elia was initially drawn to the bird because of its strange but deliberate use in one of the last paintings attributed to the revered high- Renaissance artist, Raphael. On the wall of the Sala di Costantino in the Vatican Palace, Raphael painted the well-known figure of Lady Justice (page 19). But there is something strange here – in one hand, she holds the traditional attribute of the scales, but her other hand, rather than wielding the customary sword, is curled around the neck of an alert, realistic and aggressively ugly ostrich. Why? How would Renaissance visitors to the Vatican have understood this weird interloper?

Such questions sparked D’Elia’s interest in the strange allegorical imagery of the 16th century and are the subject of her forthcoming book, Raphael’s Ostrich (Penn State 2015), which follows depictions of the ostrich through many permutations and shifts in its meaning.

photo of S. Michele in Foro, Lucca

Detail of the facade of S. Michele in Foro, Lucca, intarsia with an ostrich, 1239. This depiction of an ostrich is typical of those in the Middle Ages and early Renaissance, and the symbolism is clear. Here the sparrow camel is staring at its egg and causing it to be born, alluding to the virgin birth of Jesus.

In an age before Darwin, this enormous bird with its “useless” feathers was a living enigma. D’Elia explains, “Ostriches are central to Egyptian beliefs about the passage to the underworld. They were also hunted in the Roman Coliseum and served up at lavish banquets. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, they were objects of curiosity in menageries and of study for scientists. Their strange form and habits were read as moral lessons written in the book of nature, in that these beasts were both reviled as images of heresy, stupidity, and gluttony and praised as exemplars of stoic endurance, among other qualities.” When the ostrich was depicted in art before Raphael, it was often miniaturised and used as a flat symbol with an obvious meaning. For example, ostriches were frequently depicted with a nail in their beak as a symbol of toughness because of their fabled ability to digest iron.

Raphael’s image of the ostrich was drastically different. In the large, naturalistically-painted bird Raphael veiled the meaning and evoked a hidden knowledge – a sort of modern hieroglyph. Raphael’s invention forces us to ask a profound question − how the natural world is imbued with meaning – that D’Elia reveals came to a crisis with the rise of the foundations of both modern art history and natural history.

photo of Baldassare Peruzzi, Michelangelo Sanese and Tribolo, Lady Justice

Baldassare Peruzzi, Michelangelo Sanese and Tribolo, Lady Justice, Tomb of Pope Hadrian VI, marble, Santa Maria dell’Anima, Rome, 1523-33. This richly decorated tomb with its marble ostrich, made by one of Raphael’s followers, commemorates an austere Dutch pope, who detested pagan classical statuary and humanist learning. It is ironic that even in honoring this severely pious moralist, the fantastic ancient Egyptian ostrich rears its head next to a splendidly classical Lady Justice.

photo of Federico Zuccaro, ostrich, allegories, and emblems, fresco, Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola

Federico Zuccaro, ostrich, allegories, and emblems, fresco, Palazzo Farnese, Caprarola, probably begun 1568/9. During the early Counter Reformation, theologians attacked abstruse imagery. Cardinals who found the new austerity uncongenial retired to their villas, which they decorated with ostriches. The ostrich, which here has no symbolic meaning, but is instead a fascinating curiosity, evokes nostalgia for the High Renaissance, before the cultural crack-down that made such fantastic imagery suspect.

After his death in 1520, Raphael was enshrined as a god of art, and his work was worshipped and copied over and over. His strange conception of the ostrich became a kind of a classic, which could be imitated, emulated and satirized. However, not only did his followers copy the allegory of the ostrich as justice, they played with it in all sorts of ways, gave new life to the bird, and created their own allegories. D’Elia believes that the ostrich ultimately represents a new tradition invented by Raphael – one that gives free rein to the imagination.

Her unique research on the ostrich has allowed D’Elia to reveal a whole other side of Raphael and a Renaissance far weirder than the classic view. And when you take a closer look, after Raphael ostriches are everywhere –men and women played memory games that involved ostriches, danced in ostrich costumes, collected prints of ostriches, made scientific studies of ostriches, wrote poems about ostriches, invented fantastic ostrich tableware, and painted and sculpted the flightless bird in churches, palaces, villas, pilgrimage destinations, and parade floats. By examining the “vivid oddities, such as the ostrich, we reveal fundamental issues about art, the natural world, the role of fantasy, and the ways in which images convey meaning in the Renaissance.” And this is a story that cannot be told without the ostriches.