Mary Natalie loves her flap books so much that we now have an assortment of them. My personal favorite is probably Spot, although that was before I realized what a scandalous history flap books have, courtesy of Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura. To my great surprise, flap books were first conceived not as innocent children’s companions, but as titillating mementos of tourists’ good times in what can only be described as Renaissance Europe’s own Las Vegas: 16th century Venice.
What Happened In Venice…
Sixteenth-century Venice was a cosmopolitan, wealthy city, known for its diversity, romance, and relaxed mores. 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. All this made the city a popular tourist destination, as demonstrated by 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. What is clear 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.
Flap Books: A Sixteenth-century Fun Innovation
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 use 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.
Another image in the exhibition plays on the famous trope of a woman and her not-very-good chaperone:
A woman and her chaperone. DONATO BERTELLI/NYPL via Atlas Obscura
I know. It’s all meant to be playful and mischievous and point to why Venice was perceived as Europe’s playground. But I’ll never be able to look at Spot in quite the same way again…