A unique souvenir from Venice

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The vogue for commissioning personalized costume albums from local artists was widespread among foreign travellers in Venice – often German or Dutch students from the nearby University of Padua – during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Generally, these albums were produced according to individual preferences, and as such the pictorial representations may well bear relation to the visitor’s actual experiences, thus forming a unique souvenir of (usually) his travel.


The manuscript album we present here is a fine example of such a ‘book of memories’ (for the full description click here). It is lavishly painted in vivid gouache colours, and includes scenes of local life, rituals, Commedia dell’Arte characters, and, above all, male and female figures identified by their social status or professions, with special attention to the materiality of costume.

Certain illustrations were particularly popular among the owners of these albums. The anonymous but talented artist who meticulously painted the pages of this beautiful album was therefore able to make use of an established repertoire of patterns and presents well-known types embodying different values, ideals or vices: the powerful Doge and Dogaressa, showing their splendid brocade robes and ermine capes; the Donzella, as an allegory of chastity; the widow as a symbol of austerity; the Venetian woman bleaching her hair, thus revealing her vanity; the sensuality of the voluptuous courtesan. The representation of the Cortigiana is of the greatest interest: the figure bears a perfectly preserved liftable skirt, a tactile mechanism invented by the Venetian publisher and engraver Pietro Bertelli and first included in his Diversarum nationum habitus of 1589: When the flap is lifted, the woman is seen to be essentially naked. In our album, this flap-image is juxtaposed with the representation of a rather severe-looking widow, visually emphasizing the contrast between celibacy and lust, death and life.

The visual imagery of this album corresponds to the image of Venice itself, as perceived by foreign travellers: a fascinating mix of luxury, commercial relationships, spectacle, disguise, secrets, and sensuality. Its calli and campi were crossed by people from various nations, speaking all languages, practicing all religions, and dressed in all kinds of different ways: an entire world is mirrored in the Venetian production of printed or manuscript costume books.