This vibrantly colourful, multilingual book is the friendship album collected by Moyses Walens, a young man from the German city of Cologne. Like an early autograph album, it is a stunning souvenir of a trip through Italy and beyond, recording new encounters with distinguished people and unfamiliar scenery.
The many miniature paintings give us a wonderful insight into early 17th-century pastimes – travelling players and masked entertainers, lovers in ornate gardens, courtesans and Venetian gondoliers. They create a vivid picture of early modern Europe as seen and reimagined from a foreigner’s point of view, and they give us a glimpse of the world that might have sparked Shakespeare’s imagination when he created the Italian settings for so many of his plays.
What were friendship albums?
From the mid-16th century, German and Dutch-speaking students would often embark on a tour of other European cities to complete their studies. As mementoes of their travels, they began to keep personalised albums like this one. Alongside intricate paintings in pen and ink or watercolour, the book contains signatures, coats of arms (ff. 1v–2r), mottoes and dedications from professors, artists, physicians and the diplomat Dudley Carleton (f. 3r, cousin of George Carleton), dated mainly at Cologne.
Such albums were known in Latin as album amicorum or in German as Stammbucher. They were carefully constructed to present an image of their owners as cosmopolitan, well-educated men with wide-ranging contacts and knowledge.
At first these albums were adapted from existing printed works or put together from illustrations cut from printed books. Increasingly, however, people began to use special plain-leaved oblong albums like this one, filled with specially commissioned paintings. The new acquaintance would often pay a professional local artist to draw (or copy a stock image) on their behalf. As a result these collections showcase a diverse mixture of styles and levels of artistic skill. They range from lively local scenes – gardens, cities and landscapes, hunters and wild animals, leisure pursuits and professions – to more allegorical figures taken from Christian and classical tales.
Moyses Walens’s album and Shakespeare’s Europe
The pages digitised here display the eclectic mix of coats of arms and paintings in the album. Some of them might help us imagine scenes from Shakespeare’s plays:
- f. 11r: Travelling players and musicians, masked and exotically dressed, emerging from behind a curtain into a great hall to entertain guests at a table. This is perhaps a little like the players who arrive at Elsinore in Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet.
- f. 26r: A man weighs up the value of love and the worth of a rich woman, perhaps reminding us of Bassanio’s love for Portia, a rich heiress of Belmont.
- f. 32r: A Venetian gondolier transporting two women and a man. In The Merchant of Venice, ‘Lorenzo and his amorous Jessica’ are seen escaping from Shylock ‘in a gondilo’ or gondola (2.8.8–9). Similarly in Othello, Desdemona is said to have been ‘transported’ by ‘a gondolier, / To the gross clasps of a lascivious Moor’ (1.1.124–26).
- f. 42r: A pair of lovers in a formal, ornate garden, with a covered arbour in the background. See Much Ado About Nothing, Act 2, Scene 3.
- f. 46r: A blindfolded man being led into a bedroom by a courtesan or prostitute, like Bianca in Othello. Her chopines or high-platformed shoes are shown at her bedside (see Hamlet, 2.2.426–27).
- f. 60r: A young woman of Venice.
- f. 64r: A fiddler and lute-player entertaining well-dressed spectators at an open-air banquet.
- f. 69r: The classical tale of Diana and Actaeon, in which Actaeon the hunter unintentionally catches a glimpse of Diana the virgin goddess bathing. She punishes him by transforming him into a stag. This is a possible source for the popular idea of cuckold’s horns as a sign that a man’s wife has been unfaithful. Cuckolds are a running theme in Othello, Much Ado About Nothing and many other texts of this era.