Abu Dhabi-based art historian Anne-Lise Tropato is fascinated with falconry and has a special interest in women falconers. Tropato, who was born in France, did her PhD in Art History and Heritage Studies in Italy.
She is currently a Falconry Research Fellow at NYU Abu Dhabi where she is collating a global database of artistic falconry-related images with a particular emphasis on understanding how women are represented with falcons and what those depictions reveal about female behaviour, the human-falcon bond and its influence on science, art and history.
She also teaches an academic interdisciplinary course about the cross-cultural exploration and analysis of falconry. Tropato spoke to Gulf News about this interesting project related to an important part of Arabian culture. Excerpts:
How did you get interested in falconry?
I love the majestic look and flight of falcons and I am passionate about what falcons mean to our cultures, how they have inspired our imagination, and the shared history we have with these birds over millennia. I am fascinated by the possibility of such an intense inter-species relationship and the primordial desire to create an equal partnership between human and bird. Unlike other animals, falcons will always be free, wild, untamed, so there is a purity in this relationship which forces us to re-examine how we treat other animals and nature in general. Falconry is not just a story about hunting.
It inspires us to explore issues that are important for humanity such as spirituality, gender equality, trans-species partnership, the place of mankind in nature and much more. It has been recognised as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by Unesco because it is such an excellent prism through which to analyse and revise many aspects of our civilisation.
What is the role of falconry in European culture?
It is an important part of European cultural history. Traditionally it has been practised by royals and aristocrats to show their power and status. It was also used as a diplomatic tool. For example, in 1396 when the Ottoman forces of Sultan Bajazet defeated the Crusaders in the battle of Nikopolis, King Charles VI and the Duke of Burgundy sent their prized white gyrfalcons as ransom for freeing their generals, including the Duke’s son from their Turkish captors.
The diplomatic gifts collection at Qasar Al Watan has many falconry related pieces gifted to the UAE by various countries and corporations, indicating that falconry transcends ethnic, religious, and geographical differences.
What is the aim of your project at NYUAD?
The idea is to establish a digital collection at NYUAD drawn from artistic representations of various falconry cultures with narrative contexts based on artistic and historical research.
Our aim is to make the images accessible to researchers across the globe and encourage scholars to study the world of falconry. We also want to reach out to practicing falconers, especially the younger generation by providing awareness and knowledge about the rich cultural tradition of falconry across the globe.
What kind of images are you collecting?
We are collecting images of paintings, miniatures, sculptures, tapestries, ceramics and other items from museums, private collections and historic sites around the globe that allow for a better understanding of falconry as human heritage.
Our unique visual database brings together portraits of illustrious falconers, rare artworks, fragile artefacts, cave paintings and images of different forms of falconry that reveal the history and traditions of the sport in various cultures as well as the intangible aspect of falconry. We hope the data will help scholars and falconers to discover new connections and intersections and develop stories about our collective memory of falconry for future generations.
What does your research reveal about the history of women in falconry?
There is archaeological evidence that in Northern Europe women actively participated in falconry 1500 years ago. Famous falconers included Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine (1122-1204), and Eleanor of Arborea who issued the first law to protect birds of prey in 1392. Mary, the Duchess of Burgundy never made a public appearance without a hawk on her fist and her death in 1482 at the age of 25 was caused by a fall from her horse during a falconry party.
Chand Bibi, a Muslim regent in India has been depicted with a goshawk on her right fist in Mughal miniatures. The tradition continues with contemporary women falconers such as Ayesha Al Mansoori, who has created the first Ladies Section at the Abu Dhabi falconer’s club and is training her daughter Osha to be the youngest female falconer in the UAE; and Alessandra Olivetto from Brazil and Norwegian Ellen Hagen, the director and vice-director of the women’s working group at the International Association of Falconry, currently headed by H.E. Majeed Al Mansoori from the UAE. We plan to host an international workshop with the NYUAD Institute where falconers from Europe, Middle East and Asia will speak about the contribution of women to the history, methodology and community of falconry.
What are the stories behind the images of women falconers?
The visual narrative in falconry is centred mostly around men and their traditional patriarchal roles in society. Women have been almost invisible in texts about falconry but their presence in images is more significant than expected. There is a variety of images and different stories behind them.
Queens such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, Mary of Burgundy and Christine of Sweden deliberately crafted their visual identity as female ruler falconers to show their power, capability, and relationship with their subjects. But often painters have used imaginary women falconers as allegorical representations of abstract ideals like the virtue of sobriety, of love, or the sense of touch. You can find realistic images of women falconers in action in Medieval manuscripts such as the Smithfield Decretals from France, but the manuscript also has images of geese hunting and killing a fox, a hunter being chased by a rabbit or a shrew beating up her husband indicating that the images of women falconers are part of a context of reversal of the balance of power between predator and victim, hunter and game, man and woman.
Usually women in falconry are found in delightful images depicting earthly pleasures through idyllic settings with lush vegetation, playful animals, and musicians. Examples include Way of Salvation, a 14th century fresco painted by Andrea da Firenze in a chapel in Florence; the beautiful tapestry of the Musical Intermedia woven in Flanders around 1520, currently displayed at the Louvre Abu Dhabi; and illustrations on Qajar era Persian tiles. In these romantic settings the woman represents the falcon who is free to accept or reject the heart of her admirer or to grab it and fly away.
Which is your favourite image in the collection?
One of my favourites is a fresco from the 1260s that I photographed myself. The image is macabre, but I love the story behind it. The fresco is hidden in a cave in Italy on what used to be the hunting estate of emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen and was discovered in the late 19th century by archaeologist Giambattista Guarini.
The emperor was a well-known falconer who wrote one of the most important treatises on falconry that was inspired by the techniques of Arab falconers invited to his court and an earlier manuscript on Arab falconry. The fresco is a ‘memento mori’ — a warning from the dead to the living to live a good life on earth, where the living are depicted as falconers. The image is remarkable because it is probably the first representation of the walking dead in Western art and the origin of modern Zombie comics and movies. It makes us think about why they are shown as falconers and what the bird tells us about life and death.