The Feather Book

A parrot in a tree, with fruit created from parrot feathers, in ‘The Feather Book’ (1618) (all images courtesy McGill University Library)

In the 17th century, a gardener created a strange book of birds in which the illustrations were completely made of feathers. The Feather Book is a 1618 manuscript by Dionisio Minaggio, chief gardener in the State of Milan, held by McGill University Library. While little is known about its past, it is one of the world’s oldest preserved feather collections.

The book was recently shared by Alembic Rare Books on Twitter, and periodically resurfaces on the internet as McGill has beautiful high-resolution images to explore online. The library is straight forward about the lack of knowledge on its history:

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.

They add that Milan was at that time under Spanish rule, and “the Spaniards were familiar with feather art as it was done in Central and South America.” Whatever his reasons, Minaggio was resourceful. Along with feathers from birds in the Lombardy area around Milan, he incorporated their actual beaks, claws, skin, and even a tongue into the portraits. These are also unconventional, as at the time most nature illustrations showed birds in static profile; his sometimes take flight.

Magpies, golden orioles, thrushes, owls, and all manner of Lombardy bird perch in trees, also created from feathers, with their downy feather bark tipped with feathers specially selected to resemble leaves. A few exotic birds appear, like green and yellow parrots, and a snake skin is embedded in an illustration of the reptile. Along with the birds, the over 150 images in the book include hunters, musicians, tradesmen, and comedians (actors). These portraits are also rare, and have helped identify performers in the Commedia dell’Arte. In fact, only one image has neither birds nor people,

Other books in the same era sometimes were made of the material they discussed, such as xylotheks, books made of wood holding wood specimens. McGill acquired The Feather Book in 1920 when their librarian Dr. Gerhard Lomer purchased it from British book dealer Dobell. Since then it’s roosted as a curious wonder at the Montréal university, and through the digitization anyone can zoom in close at the unexpected avian details of the 17th-century book.

A golden oriole in a tree with a man fishing in ‘The Feather Book’ (1618)

A jackdaw and hawfinch in ‘The Feather Book’ (1618)

A male green woodpecker sticking out its tongue to search for insects in ‘The Feather Book’ (1618)

A male green woodpecker and a snake in a tree in ‘The Feather Book’ (1618)

A long-eared owl attached to a perch, the only bird in ‘The Feather Book’ (1618) who is not in profile

A long-eared owl in a tree with dried fig and willow leaves in ‘The Feather Book’ (1618)

A white collared dove in a tree overlooking a belfry and tower in ‘The Feather Book’ (1618)

A tern flying over trees, a stream, and buildings in ‘The Feather Book’ (1618)

A female mallard in ‘The Feather Book’ (1618)

Explore high-resolution images from The Feather Book by Dionisio Minaggio online at McGill University Library

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Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...