Why is the stork a symbol of parental and filial devotion? And why do we consider the fox to be a fraudulent creature? Much of the modern imagery associated with animals has its roots in the ancient and medieval world. Indeed, in these times the oral stories about animals constituted a very important source of knowledge, particularly because of the tight relationship between humans and nature. Soon, many of these oral tales gave birth to written compilations known as bestiaries, that is to say didactic texts that collected descriptions of animals, real and imaginary, along with allegorical or moral messages.
Although they vary in form, structure, style and language, all bestiaries, and in particular those which circulated in medieval Italy, derive from the Greek Physiologus, written by an unknown author in the second century A.D. within the Christian communities of the Middle East, most likely in Alexandria. The oldest version of the Physiologus consists of forty-eight chapters aimed at providing a wealth of didactic information about the nature and the symbolic meaning of real or mythical animals. Conceived as a handbook designed to uncover the allegorical relationship between the natural and metaphysical worlds, it is an eclectic work that combines a variety of sources. Indeed, not only does it collect material from both the Bible and the classical world, but also from Egyptian and other ancient Near Eastern writings. Each chapter is divided into two sections: the first one includes a quotation from the Bible, the second one offers a naturalistic description of the subject followed by an allegorical or moral interpretation. The Physiologus offered an interpretation of nature from a religious perspective and had a wide circulation, indeed, it was the source text for medieval bestiaries in all European languages, including Anglo-Saxon, Old High German, Flemish, French, Provençal, Spanish and Italian. Libro della Natura degli animali is one of the most important Italian medieval bestiaries.
Bestiary lore also had a great impact on medieval and modern literature. In Dante Alighieri’s Commedia, we find a plethora of examples of the medieval zoomorphic imagery as they are used to describe the conditions of the characters in the afterlife. A modern example is found in Angelo Branduardi’s songs. Angelo Branduardi (born February 12, 1950) is an Italian cantautore, that is to say a singer-songwriter and composer. In his album Alla Fiera dell’Est (1976), the singer, like a sort of medieval minstrel, collected and performed materials partly built on bestiary lore.
In the next sections of this module we will consider three texts that focus on animals or animal lore. We will start with Branduardi’s Alla Fiera dell’Est; then, we will focus on the imagery associated with two creatures, the stork and the fox, as they emerge from the Libro della Natura degli Animali and from Dante Alighieri’s Commedia.