Thursday, July 15, 2021

History of cockatoos and panics and American journalism

Andrea Mantegna's Mantua Madonna ... and bird

I try not to consume too much American media, because it is easy to get drawn into the crazy down there as if it were the norm. But that mighty media machine does provide a lot of good material too.

Case 1 is a story in the New Yorker about an art history scholar in Australia studying works of the Italian renaissance artist Mantegna, who was active in the late 1400s, and seeing in one of them a small but very detailed image of a cockatoo -- a bird native to Australia and some of the islands around New Guinea.  

How did a cockatoo get to Mantua in 1496? is the burden of the article.  (There's another, it turns out, in a volume from the 1240s belonging to the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.)  And the answer, simple when you think about it, but very nicely laid out in Rebecca Mead's article is ... trade. Well before 1000 CE, there was quite a lot of sea trade between China and Southeast Asia and westward to India and on to the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea ports.  Luxuries were a significant driver of trade, useful in the exchanges between princes and aristocrats that facilitated trade.  

So why not a cockatoo? It's our Eurocentric it-all-starts-with-Columbus that fools us into placing Australia beyond an unreachable horizon before 1492. Columbus, remember, wanted to get in the trade opportunities of "the Indies" -- because he knew they already existed! The desire to trade, the article's experts aver, can be a more important driver of history than the dreams of adventurers or the ambitions of monarchs. (Cod and the new found land, sez the Canadianist.)

Case 2 is from The Atlantic: Chris Heath's "The Truth Behind the Amazon Mystery Seeds."  Remember last year there was a media sensation/panic about lots of people receiving mysterious and unsoliticted little packages of seeds ... from China!  Covid contagion? Political subversion? Ecological attack? Commercial scam? What is this thing and What Must Be Done? I won't say much about Heath's discoveries because they are worth discovering for yourself, but the exploration is both amusing and enlightening, and nicely twisty. Let's classify it as a case study in the history of rumours and panics, and yes, the wierdness of trade. 

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