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Page last updated at 10:39 GMT, Tuesday, 19 May 2009 11:39 UK
Masterpiece yields bird secret
Matt Walker
Editor, Earth News

A Greater Bird of Paradise adorns the left hand page of The Farnese Hours (J. Muzinic and J. of Ornithology)
The bird adorning The Farnese Hours is actually a Greater Bird of Paradise (J. Muzinic and J. of Ornithology)

A masterpiece of Renaissance art contains one of the oldest examples of mistaken identity in the natural world.

A famous prayer book known as The Farnese Hours contains the first known illustration of a Greater Bird of Paradise, but for years the image was thought to be of another bird.

Ornithologists and art historians have now established its real identity.

The discovery helps reveal how Europeans learned about exotic bird species and why they became precious.

European interest in exotic animals dates back to the Romans, who imported gladiatorial animals from Africa and Asia. It continued though the Middle Ages, with the royal penchant for menageries of wild animals.

But the 16th Century brought a new, scientific approach to nature, with European collectors filling natural history cabinets with preserved animals and drawings of different, often exotic creatures.

We believe that a rare bird of paradise skin in the early years of its discovery was as precious as some sacred relic, possessed only by rulers and high aristocracy
Ornithologist Jasmina Muzinic

Sometime between 1539 and 1546, the Croatian miniaturist Julije Klovic illustrated The Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary prayer book, known more popularly as The Farnese Hours.

Within this masterpiece of miniature art, he drew a bird of paradise.

Yet despite the rarity of such birds in Europe at the time, art historians barely mentioned the picture of the bird in their analyses of the book, and its provenance remained unclear.

Now the mystery has been solved by ornithologist Jasmina Muzinic and art historian Jasenka Bogdan, both of the Croatian Academy of Sciences and Arts in Zagreb, and bird of paradise expert Bruce Beehler of Conservation International in Arlington, Virginia.

They've published their findings in the Journal of Ornithology.

Europeans first became aware of birds of paradise in 1522, says Dr Muzinic, when five dried skins were returned from Indonesia to Spain by the crew of explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

Two skins were a gift from a local ruler, the sultan of the Moluccan island of Bachian to King Charles V. Except for these two skins, Magellan's crew brought three more, purchased from the natives.

Bird of Paradise illustration within The Farnese Hours
Miniaturist Julije Klovic's creation in full(J. Muzinic and J. of Ornithology)

No explorers at the time would have seen a live bird of paradise. The only acquired skins from native inhabitants who made their skins for their own purposes: they believed that these birds brought victory in tribal battles. They also used feathers for head-dresses worn in different ceremonies and for mystical purposes.

In 2001, when a facsimile of the The Farnese Hours was published, it was proposed that the book pictured a Raggiana Bird of Paradise from western New Guinea.

The problem though, is that the island wasn't known to Europeans at the time Klovic illustrated the prayer book, and this particular species of exotic bird didn't become known till 1873.

God bird from Heaven

Further examination by Dr Muzinic's team reveals that Klovic actually drew a Greater Bird of Paradise, which is endemic to the Aru islands, southwest of New Guinea. And he most likely copied the bird from one of the original five Magellan skins.

Rather than drawing it for scientific purposes, he probably created the first ever image of a Greater Bird of Paradise for symbolic purposes.

In Indonesia, the native people called them God birds, believing they had come from heaven.

That symbolism then infused European artworks, as the bird of paradise instantly became the mythical paradise bird, being used to illustrate abstract meanings such as eternity, heaven, purity and virginity.

"We believe that a rare bird of paradise skin in the early years of its discovery was as precious as some sacred relic, possessed only by rulers and high aristocracy," says Dr Muzinic.

Later that century, the beautiful plumes of the birds of paradise became highly valued decorations for hats and caps, being imported from Indonesia alongside spices, woods, gold, silver, coconut and rubber.

As part of their research, Dr Muzinic and her colleagues also discovered a hitherto undescribed Giulio Romano bird of paradise on an Italian tapestry.

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