The Turkey Dazzles Renaissance Florentines

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Remember Giambologna’s turkey in the Bargello? Did you ever wonder if that sixteenth-century Florentine bronze sculpture had anything to do with the roasted and stuffed bird that you gobble up at Thanksgiving and Christmas? with the bird that Benjamin Franklin had wanted to put on the American seal in place of the eagle? The answer is yes, and the story of what and how is truly amazing, as you’ll now hear.

When Renaissance explorers pushed off from the coast of Europe to sail across the Atlantic they wanted to discover the water route to the Orient, unaware that a great body of land – the Americas – lay in the way. They were looking for gold and spices, and never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined what they would find instead – strange plants like potatoes and tobacco and startling birds like toucans and turkeys.

Christopher Columbus saw turkeys when he landed at Cape Honduras on his last voyage in 1502, though nine years had to pass before the bird itself journeyed overseas to the Old World. The earliest evidence of turkeys in Europe is found in a letter of 1511, in which King Ferdinand of Spain ordered his chief-treasurer in the West Indies to send ten turkeys (five male and five female, for breeding) with every ship sailing to Seville.

Another nine years elapsed before the first turkeys reached Italy. Early in 1520, Alessandro Geraldini, Bishop of Santo Domingo in Haiti, sent a turkey-cock and turkey-hen to Cardinal Lorenzo Pucci. Geraldini explained in the accompanying letter that he was sending them as examples of the marvels of nature. Perhaps Pucci (who was a Florentine) kept a zoo of exotic animals, as many people did then. Just imagine how jealously the cardinals will have competed to keep up with Pucci: we know that within ten years Cardinal Salviati (another Florentine) had a whole flock of turkeys strutting through his garden in Rome.

If cardinals were envious, artists were ecstatic. From their point of view, the turkey could not have made its entrance at a more favourable moment. The revival of antique culture was at its height in Italy around 1520, by which time Italians had developed an insatiable appetite for a kind of ancient decoration that they called grotteschi, after the painted underground grottoes (in fact buried rooms of ancient palaces) then being excavated all over Rome. The special quality of grotteschi – monstrous plant and animal forms – is bizarreness. When artists saw the turkey they saw something even more bizarre than grotteschi: they saw a natural creature that surpassed man-made art in weirdness.

It took no more than two years for the turkey to début in the world of art. In 1522-23, in the villa of the Florentine Cardinal Medici outside Rome, Giovanni da Udine painted a vault showing scenes of antique sacrifices flanked by images of birds – the ostrich, peacock and a strikingly realistic turkey. The ostrich and peacock were ancient symbols in legend and art, but the turkey was a newcomer and did not carry any deeper meaning; it was included purely because it looked so strange.

The turkey that sits in the vault of Cardinal Medici’s villa is the earliest depiction of the turkey in the whole of Western art. The next significant representation of the turkey also was commissioned by a Florentine. This time the bird appears in a portière, the first tapestry to be woven in Florence in 1545, in Cosimo de’Medici’s newly established workshop. In the scene we see the personification of Abundance entering from the right and a child at the left. In the foreground between them is a splendid turkey, gazing at us with a slightly puzzled air, as though it had accidentally wandered up from the garden in the background.

Cosimo must have loved turkeys. In 1567 he ordered Giambologna to make a life-size sculpture in bronze for his menagerie of over thirty creatures, carved from various materials, to be displayed in his grotto at Villa Castello near Florence. Giambologna’s sculpture, now in the Bargello, is not only the third representation of a turkey commissioned by the Medici of Florence, but also the third major work in the history of European art to glorify the turkey.

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This page last updated: February 27, 2006.