Be a part of a creative and interactive community of talents! Build your connections, find resources, and extend your brand! Explore your opportunities!

The Flapbooks Of 16th-Century Venice (They Were Oh-So- Naughty)

Mar 7, 2017


Imagine you were a rich European in the 16th century, and you wanted to travel. Top on your bucket list might be Venice, a cosmopolitan, free-wheeling city, known for its diversity, romance, and relaxed mores. Venice was a wealthy place, where Titian, Tintoretto, and other famous artists were at the height of their powers. As a republican port city, it was tolerant of all sorts of people and all sorts of behavior in ways that other European cities were not.

While in Venice, you might purchase a flap book to help you remember the good times you had there. Above is one example of an illustration from Le vere imagini et descritioni delle piv nobilli citta del mondo—“the true images and descriptions of the most noble city in the world.”

This image is part of a new exhibition at the New York Public Library, Love in Venice, which includes two flap books from the late 16th century that depict a lascivious kind of love.

The books are attributed to Donato Bertelli, a printmaker and bookseller, although it’s hard to say exactly who wrote the book. What is clear, says Madeleine Viljoen, the curator of the exhibit, is that the book is connected to “a family of very savvy book publishers who understood how to take advantage of people coming to Venice for tourism and people curious about what they might see there and experience there.” 

In the 16th century, flap books were a fun innovation in publishing, used for purposes both serious and satirical. One of the most studied types of flap book displayed the anatomy of the human body: you could dissect a person by paging through the flaps. Publishers also would used layers of paper to create volvelles, wheels made of paper that might be used to calculate the movement of the sun or moon.

But there were also some cheekier uses of the flaps. During the Counterreformation, for instance, one flap book let the reader lift up the robes of Martin Luther and peek underneath. “I don’t think it was meant to be playful or titillating,” says Viljoen. “It’s about humiliation.”