Pair of peacocks

Coral, white enamel, gilt copper, gilt bronze

Height 14,3 cm
First half of the 17th century
Private collection, Milan



The two peacocks, portrayed in the act of strutting and spreading their tails, stand on flared and truncated pyramidal bases whose faces are decorated with coral inserts in the shape of small pearls, ovals and commas. The birds' bodies, tails and wings, in gilded copper, are adorned with inserted coral pods. The outer rims of their spread tails display alternating white enamel flowers and coral pearls. Where the wings are joined to the body, they present a white enamel flower. The bodies, the legs and the heads, crowned with crests consisting in small coral pearls, are in finely chased gilded bronze.

Peacocks are a genuine rarity in the range of coral objects produced in the Baroque era, which stretches from liturgical items such as holy-water stoups, capezzali, cribs and crucifixes to secular items such as desk sets and boxes. In fact, the only other pair of peacocks published and known in literature hitherto is a pair that was formerly in the Whitaker Collection (C. Arnaldi di Balme, S. Castronovo 2008, p. 27, fig. 16; A. Daneu 1964, p. 150, nos. 212-213, pl. XIII; M.C. Di Natale 2001, p. 56, fig. 60; C. Maltese 1986, p. 197, n. 43). The peacock in pagan symbology was considered akin to the image of the Arabian Phoenix, a bird credited with the power to rise again from its own ashes, while in the Christian era it began to be associated with the Resurrection of Christ. Sicilian altar frontals embroidered with gold thread, silver thread and coral pearls, their design frequently inspired by the mosaics of the Norman era, frequently bear depictions of the peacock, albeit as a symbol rather than as a purely decorative object (as in the case of the pair of peacocks under discussion here). In heraldry, the peacock is a symbol both of narcissistic vanity and of watchfulness (L. Caratti di Valfrei 1997, p. 148; G. Santi-Mazzini 2003, p. 314).

Reference bibliography: C. Arnaldi di Balme, S. Castronovo, ed., Rosso corallo. Arti preziose della Sicilia barocca, exhibition catalogue, Milan 2008; L. Caratti di Valfrei, Dizionario di araldica, Milan 1997; A.Daneu, L’arte trapanese del corallo, Banco di Sicilia 1964; M.C. Di Natale, Splendori di Sicilia. Arti Decorative dal Rinascimento al Barocco, Milan 2001; C. Maltese,  L’arte del corallo in Sicilia, exhibition catalogue, Trapani 1986; G. Santi-Mazzini, Arardica. Storia linguaggio, simboli e significati dei blasoni e delle armi, Milan 2003.