Meet Dodo

Images can store memories of long-lost people or objects. Sometimes they even revive them. I experience this feeling every time I look at the animals collected by Roelant Savere in his painting. Especially I am looking for the one hidden in the shadows behind a big bull in the foreground and shown in everlasting dispute with an emotional heron.

Roelant Savery, Noah’s Ark, ca. 1620-1629, National Museum in Warsaw ©

The biblical theme of the Deluge and the ark of Noah offered artists the opportunity to show the wealth of all creature, at the same time protecting them from accusations of falling into exaggeration. Emperor Rudolf II did not care about such an accusation. He was an avid collector of everything that seemed unusual, unique and exotic to him. From this passion his various collections were created – kunstkamera (now exhibited at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna), menagerie (the prototype of today’s zoo) and a collection of art. The latter consisted, among others, of works created on the order of the emperor and in line with his passion for collecting and Mannerist taste. One of the artists working at the court of Rudolph II was Savery – a painter of animals, who developed his workshop by sketching specimens from the emperor’s menagerie.  

Perhaps he used these drawings while compiling this diverse cluster waiting to embark on the ark. You can try to name all the animals he depicted. You can find there the domesticated ones: dogs, cows, horses (beautifully displayed white Lipizzan horse), as well as those living in European forests – a lone wolf, wild boar, bison, or deer. Exotic animals are both from close by Africa – elephants or ostriches, but also there are ambassadors of distant lands, like the cassowary from Australia. However, I am always looking for a Dodo hidden behind a bull.  

Roelant Savery, Noah’s Ark, ca. 1620-1629, detail, National Museum in Warsaw

Dodo was an endemic inhabitant of Mauritius deprived of natural enemies until the end of the sixteenth century. Apparently it was the size of a massive chicken, quite corpulent, completely tame and with lost flying ability. All of these features worked against him, when the Dutch reached the island and in less than a century they rooted out the entire population of the dodo. We do not know much about it, because few specimens have arrived in Europe, and only a few skeletons have survived in natural history museums. Therefore, only a few pictures and drawings remind us of the existence of this nice-looking bird, which lost its vigilance over its history. And in the face of an unexpected threat, he let himself be annihilated.   Its story always gives me a sad reflection on evanescence. It reminds me how quickly you can irretrievably lose something that seemed to last forever and disappeared completely inane. As the English say: it’s dead as dodo.

Cornelis Saftleven, Dodo, detail, 1638, Boijmans van Beuningen, Rotterdam ©

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