Updated: Dec 24, 2020
Biological taxonomy, the system of ranked classification for natural species dates back to Plato and Aristotle. However, it was the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus who is regarded as founder of our current system of biological categorisation. It was he who named the Albatross family Diomedeidae, in reference to a story in Homer’s Iliad. Diomedes, along with Odysseus and Palamedes, was a commander in the Greek army that sailed with Agamemnon to lay siege to Troy and recover Helen. According to Greek mythology, sometime after the fall of Troy Diomedes deeply offended the goddess Athena, in her fury she conjured up a ferocious storm at sea to wreck his fleet. In one version of the legend she turned him and his drowned crew into large white birds, in another he lived his life out in exile, wandering the lonely seas.
The Wandering Albatross, Diomedea exulans (exile), has the longest wingspan of any bird – up to 3.3 metres, and can live up to 50 years in the wild. They are rarely seen on land, gathering once every two years to reconnect with their mate and breed. These extraordinary birds have long featured in Western art and literature, most recently in the work of artist Marco Luccio. In a response to the social isolation caused by the Covid-19 pandemic Luccio collaborated with Melbourne-based company Rock Posters in an effort to create art which could reach out into the public realm and engage with individuals who have suddenly found themselves occupying a dramatically changed social landscape. Inspired by Picasso’s image of a dove produced for a poster promoting the First International World Peace Congress in Paris in 1949, Luccio set out to create a work which conjured a feeling of connectedness during a time of isolation. This resulted in a poster with the image of a pair of albatrosses tenderly touching beaks with the words LOVE, HOPE, TRUST emblazoned on the bottom. The works are on walls all around Melbourne and Sydney turning the cities into an art gallery accessible to all.
For Luccio the albatross is a symbol of both isolation and social fidelity. “This solitary traveller crosses immense distances alone, yet its objective is always to reunite with its life-long partner and companions. The albatross is often ‘at sea’, and many of us may have found ourselves, metaphorically, in a similar position having had our usual modes of life, particularly for Australians our love of travel, taken from us in the blink of an eye. Yet, according to Luccio, “with love as the driving force, trust in the process, and hope for the future we can also emerge to a new reality enhanced by the reflection on meaning that enforced solitude tends to provoke”. It would seem that while the albatross was named after Diomedes, a more apt comparison would have been his brother-in-arms, Odysseus. The man who wandered the seas but, like the albatross, returned to his only true companion - Penelope.