Get Turned On The Old Venetian Way With These Sexy Flap Books

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Move along, nothing to see here ― right? Just an elegant lady enjoying a leisurely gondola ride with her elderly female chaperone, a depiction of a proper young woman going about daily life in 16th-century Venice.

But wait, let’s look again:

Alex Poucher

Courtesy of the NYPL

Donato Bertelli, Italian, active 1568-74, “Woman and Chaperone/Lovers,” 
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art Prints and Photographs: Print Collection.

Oh my! A lifted flap reveals a far more scandalous scene; instead of a chaperone, the lady is accompanied by a dashing gentleman who appears to be feeling her up. 

This erotic interactive flap book, currently on view at the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman building, was illustrated by Donato Bertelli in the late 16th century. The book is part of “Venice in Love,” an exhibition featuring the NYPL’s collections of erotic and romantic artifacts from the Republic of Venice, which existed as an independent state from the 13th to 18th centuries.

In her description of the exhibition, curator Madeleine Viljoen notes that Venice, a relatively liberated secular state, was “famed for its high-end courtesans and low-end prostitutes,” as well as the beauty and elaborate grooming of its women. Throughout its lifetime, the state became “a prime destination for lovers and pleasure seekers,” along with art-lovers ― and the exhibition puts on display the union between Venice’s artistic proclivities and its erotic ones.

Alex Poucher

Courtesy of the NYPL

Giulio Campagnola’s reclining nude, which relates to the great “Sleeping Venus” (1510) by the Venetian Renaissance master Giorgione, exemplifies a type that is unique to Venice. The woman in each composition lies asleep on her side, but Giorgione’s faces outward toward the viewer, while Campagnola’s turns away so that we see her from behind. Regardless of her position, each woman is oblivious to the viewer, affording an opportunity for unalloyed voyeurism. (Giulio Campagnola, Italian, 1482–1515, “Woman Reclining in a Landscape,” stipple engraving, 1510–15, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Print Collection.)
Alex Poucher

Courtesy of the NYPL

Teodoro Viero modeled his image after one by Giovanni Battista Piazzetta, investing it with a frisson of heat. A woman, her head turned away from the viewer, touches her breast in a gesture that suggests longing while drawing attention to her ample bosom, an idea that is reinforced by the inscription. (Teodoro Viero, Italian, 1740–1819, “Sospesa e incerta di lontano obbietto studia le forme e il cor l’agita in petto (Suspended and uncertain, she studies an object from afar as her heart beats against her breast),” etching and engraving, ca. 1770–80, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Print Collection.)

As for Bertelli’s peekaboo love scene, why hide the romantic embrace behind another drawing? Viljoen, also the NYPL prints curator, told The Huffington Post in an email that the purpose of the interactive flap book was clearly sexual. “The Venetian flap books,” she said, “were designed with the titillation of the viewer in mind.”

Another flap book leans even more explicitly softcore, allowing readers to enact a pre-photographic version of an upskirt shot:

Alex Poucher

Courtesy of the NYPL

“Le vere imagini et descritioni delle piv nobilli citta del mondo,” 1578, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.
Alex Poucher

Courtesy of the NYPL

“Le vere imagini et descritioni delle piv nobilli citta del mondo,” 1578, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs.

Viljoen’s description of the exhibition calls attention to the young woman’s “underwear and platform shoes, known as chopines” ― a sexy getup for the time.

These two flap books aren’t just eye-grabbing; they’re highly unusual. “There has been much interest in recent years in so-called interactive prints,” Viljoen told HuffPost. However, “[t]hese were usually didactic and included items like paper astrolabes or anatomical studies … except for the books shown in the Library’s collection, I cannot think of any other examples of specifically erotic flap books.”

The sensuous images found in the NYPL’s Venetian prints don’t look much like modern day erotica ― in olden days, after all, a glimpse of stocking was looked upon as something shocking ― but boast the same twinkle of subversive playfulness that still titillates frisson-seekers today. “The act of lifting the curtain from the young lovers or of raising the courtesan’s skirt seems quintessentially voyeuristic,” Viljoen told HuffPost.

When it comes to the erotic, some things never change.

Alex Poucher

Courtesy of the NYPL

Click to view the original article on The Huffington Post.

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