The New York Public Library Explores Romance, Sex, and Desire in New Exhibition

FEBRUARY 10, 2017 -- In partnership with Carnegie Hall’s festival La Serenissima: Music and Arts from the Venetian Republic (February 3-21, 2017), The New York Library is hosting the exhibition Love in Venice, which examines the literary, artistic, musical, and cultural aspects of Venice’s enduring seductiveness. Opening at the Library’s iconic Stephen A. Schwarzman Building on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street on February 10, Love in Venice will be on view until August 29 in the Wachenheim Gallery.

The Republic of Venice, a secular state originating in the city of Venice and its surrounding lagoon communities, thrived for half a millennium (1297–1797) on the wealth of its mercantile elite, who dominated a robust sea trade with Europe and beyond. Such prosperity, combined with an autonomy and freedom atypical of the rest of Italy, made the Venetian republic a tolerant society—and, before long, a prime destination for lovers and pleasure seekers. Consequently, as leisure travel grew more fashionable among wealthy Europeans in the 16th century, Venice catered increasingly to tourists with a taste for art, music, literature, and dance, as well as those in thrall to the spell of love. Venice’s unique desirability would continue long after the decline of the republic in the late 18th century and its eventual incorporation into a unified Italy. Around sixty artworks, books, letters and other artifacts will be on view from the Library’s special collections. “Together these works document Venice’s singular appeal as a destination for love and romantic intrigue,” said Madeleine Viljoen, Curator of the Prints and the Spencer Collection, who was also responsible for the show.

Themes the exhibition will explore include Venice’s association with Venus, the ancient goddess of love and sensuality. Punning on the homonymic associations of Venice (Venezia) and Venus (Venere), Venetian writers and artists depicted Venus as a close companion and embodiment of the city. The idea, which is current from at least the early 16th century, is based on the shared association with the sea, for much as Venice rose from the briny waters of the lagoon, Venus was born from sea foam. The frontispiece for the festival book celebrating Ferdinando de’ Medici, Grand Prince of Tuscany’s visit to Venice in 1688, for example, shows a nude Venus arriving on a conch shell being introduced to a female embodiment of Venice, drawing a clear association between the two women. Venus was also a favorite of the leading sixteenth-century artist Titian, who depicted the goddess with her male lovers or simply gazing at herself in a mirror. Titian’s penchant for the goddess is memorialized in reproductive prints including one by the well-known woodcut artist Niccolò Boldrini depicting Venus and her son, Amor.

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Niccolò Boldrini (Italian, ca. 1500–1566)

After Tiziano Vecellio, called Titian (Italian, 1488–1576)

Venus and Amor

Woodcut, 1560

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Print Collection

    Famed for its high-end courtesans and low-end prostitutes, Venetian costume books celebrate the city for its erotic attractions. Though these women often dressed alluringly, they were not always easy to distinguish by their clothing alone. Many courtesans intentionally blurred social boundaries by seeking out the latest fashions and matching the refinement of their clothing and accoutrements to that of Venetian noblewomen, as is seen in the case of Donato Bertelli’s engravings for Le vere imagini et descrittioni, published in 1578.



Donato Bertelli (Italian, active 1568–74)

[A Courtesan Unexposed/Exposed] in Le vere imagini e descrittioni (True images and descriptions)

Venice: Donato Bertelli, 1578

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, Print Collection

The sixteenth-century flap book features a beautiful young courtesan whose evident charms are only heightened by the opportunity the book offers to lift the flap and look beneath. The viewer can take pleasure in her long breech-like underwear and platform shoes, known as chopines.

Venetian women were renowned for their loveliness and they expended considerable effort to enhance their beauty, including the unusual practice of bleaching their hair to create the Titian blonde. A costume book by Cesare Vecellio, Titian’s cousin, shows a woman on her rooftop perch with her face shaded by a special crownless hat to prevent sun burn dying her locks in the heat of the day. Another book is the first of its kind to offer recipes for a range of perfumes, soaps and unguents, many sourced from Venice’s maritime connections with the East.

Home to and a destination for lovers throughout history, Venice is famed for characters like Lord Byron and Casanova, who spent time there. A Pforzheimer collection letter by one of Lord Byron’s unidentified Venetian mistresses is full of jealous recrimination, while a rare set of nineteenth-century lithographs portrays native Venetian Casanova with Christine whom he met and pursued there.  Yet the quest for love was not without risk, a number of objects warn, including a rare late fifteenth-century chapbook melodramatically titled Vendetta d’amore (Vendetta of Love), which shows a young woman committing suicide by plunging a dagger in her breast because, the title suggests, she was too cruel and ungrateful to her lovers.

Love could also be the source of great festivity as is the case in the ritual marriage of Venice to the sea, the so-called Sposalizio del Mare. Each year on the feast of the Ascension of the Virgin, the Doge of Venice was rowed out to the Lido in his barge, called the Bucintoro, where he would cast a ring into the waters, symbolically uniting Venice to the sea, an event documented in an etching by Giovanni Battista Brustolon after Canaletto. Lavishly produced texts were published to honor the unions of famous Venetians, moreover, including the rare wedding poem composed for Count Giovanni Fullini and Countess Elisabetta Antonini published in 1769 by Antonio Zatta in Venice. Such celebrations are augmented by festivals and masquerades, all of which made for a city that was renowned for its liveliness and opportunities for high jinks.

Finally, rarely on view, will be two versions of the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, arguably Aldus Manutius’s most important publication, one on vellum and another on regular paper, which are among the first early modern books to explore complex notions of desire. The protagonist Poliphilo wanders through an antiquarian dreamscape in search of his lover Polia, encountering on his way many puzzling artifacts and  experiencing classical rites, including the the Sacrifice of Priapus shown in the exhibition. The comparison of the two books affords a chance to see one of the volume’s most sensual images in its censored and uncensored states. Shown in front of a group of adoring women, the image depicts the god of fertility with his alert and priapic member, a feature that was often obliterated by later owners, as is the case in the Library’s copy on paper.


Uncensored copy of the Aldus Manutius’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, printed on vellum, 1499, The Spencer Collection.

Several public events and programs complement the exhibition including:

  • Casanova: Seduction and Genius in Venice, February 13, 2017, 6:30pm Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Celeste Bartos Auditorium. The program features Laurence Bergreen, author of the new biography Casanova: the World of a Seductive Genius and author and psychosexual therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer, who has said, “To all those who seem to think sex was invented in their lifetime, I suggest they take a look back in time and see if they can’t learn a thing or two from a true master” in conversation with Emily Witt, author of Future Sex, which was named one of Slate Book Review Best Books of the Year for 2016.

  • The Library After Hours, February 24, 6:30-9pm. This event features specialty cocktails, Italian snacks, guided curator tours of the Love in Venice exhibition, music and dance lessons, mask-making, and short Venetian films from the Library's archives.