The Italian humanist Biondo Flavio of Forli (1392-1463) was one of the great names of Renaissance humanism. His extensive Description of Italy (Italia Illustrata) collected anecdota and geographical information about every region of the country from ancient times until his own day. It was first published in 1451, but saw frequent additions and revisions until Flavio’s death. Book II, section 7 of his treatise provides some details on how the natives of Nettuno (a town in the region of Lazio, south of Rome) go about netting birds. The passage attracted my attention for some reason, and I thought it might be worth relating; it may even be of interest to modern hunters. Flavio himself can provide the specific details:
The sea there has lots of rocks, or rather gravel, and many excellent fish. Dense forests offer, as ever, good hunting of boar and deer. Fowling is of two sorts, depending on the time of year. At the first sign of spring, swallows and quail (now known as quaglie from their call) return together to Italy across the Tyrrhenian Sea. The people of Nettuno then cover the whole shoreline of old Anzio with continuous netting for a space of five miles.
Each man sits on his own patch of ground, purchased at great expense, and with a pipe lures the quail as they arrive at night on to his own bit of the nets. When they are entangled in the nets in large numbers, the fowler picks up any that fall on to the sand beyond the net, exhausted by the long flight. I have heard that in a single month when the fowling was carried over several days, 100,000 of these little birds may be caught every single day.
Apparently this kind of “mass fowling” can be traced back to ancient times. Flavio notes that the quail in question are also mentioned in Pliny’s Historia Naturalis X.65–X.66:
These are the very quail of which Pliny says: “The quail always arrive before the cranes. It is a small bird, and when it has arrived, more generally keeps to the ground than flies aloft. Their flight is not without danger to mariners, for when they approach land they often smash into the sails of a ship, and that too always in the night, and the vessel often sinks. They will not fly when the south wind is blowing, as that wind is humid and apt to weigh them down…”
Flavio provides us more details about how the mass fowling takes place.
They also catch birds at Anzio in the autumn. After they have flown over the sea, wood pigeons gather for a while in the woods of Anzio as they prepare to leave Italy. The expert fowlers of Nettuno hang up huge nets specially made for this sort of fowling at great expense. When they see a great number of pigeons gathered together and roosting in the trees, they terrify them by throwing stones and shouting, and make them fly off. In their flight the birds are forced into a great flock. When the fowlers see them above the snares of the nets they have spread, they sling small stones at them (either naturally white or coated with gypsum) with a great shout.
Terrified by the whirring noise, the pigeons try to save themselves by dodging [what they believe to be] the hawks…which in their terror the imagine in the whirring of the slingshots. Flying as quickly as they can, they come near to the ground and thus distracted hurtle into the nets…Most of the present-day people of Rome catch wood pigeons for weddings and banquets, for these small birds are better in flavor and more nutritious than other cock pigeons. [Trans. by Jeffrey A. White]
One of the pleasures of reading old travel books and geographical surveys is that they provide us a window on the era in which they were written. They function as portable time-machines by freezing existence at the moment they were composed. It does not even matter if a travel book is “out of date”; the mind provides the scene and keeps it alive in our collective consciousness.
Perhaps the natives of Nettuno today still practice some form of fowling; perhaps they do not. I do not know. But having read over Flavio’s description of fowling above, I can forever revisit the scene of Renaissance Italian townsmen laying out five miles of netting along the shoreline, scaring birds en masse out of the trees, waving their arms and shouting at them, and pelting them with volleys of stones.
The image remains forever fixed, suspended perfectly in time. Just like a hapless quail dangling in an Anzio net.
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