Images from the Feather Book of Dionisio Minaggio
McGill University Library
The Feather Book was created by Dionisio Minaggio, the Chief Gardener of the State of Milan in 1618. We have no idea why he made it, although it has been suggested that it might have been a project to occupy his staff during the long winter months and to use up some of the feathers left over from the birds used in the kitchen. It has also been suggested that the project may have been commissioned by the Governor. At the time, Milan was under Spanish rule and the Spaniards were familiar with feather art as it was done in Central and South America. Although the style and techniques used were quite different, it is possible that such works may have been an inspiration for this project.
The Feather Book is a collection of illustrations made completely of bird feathers - with a few added extras. The majority of the pictures represent the birds of Lombardy - the area of Italy around Milan. They are complete with beaks and claws and, in a few cases, you can also see the skin of the head underneath the feathers. They may, in fact, represent the oldest collection of bird feathers - as bird specimens - in existence. In one image, the bird is eating a chameleon and in another, the bird has its tongue out and is scooping up insects from the bark of the tree on which it is perched. In one case, the leaves of the tree are present. There are also a couple of parrots and a bustard (probably) which are not native to Italy but the birds and/or their descriptions may have come from sailors visiting the city.
As well as the bird images, there are collections depicting hunters, tradesmen, musicians and Commedia del’Arte characters.
We do not know what happened to the Feather Book between 1618 and the mid-1700s. By that time, though, it was in the collection of Taylor White, an English judge who was fascinated with natural history. It remained in his family until about 1920 at which time it was offered for sale by the British bookdealer Dobell and was bought by Dr. Gerhard Lomer, the McGill Librarian.