This wonderfully witty painting gives us a voyeuristic glimpse of a romantic scene on a gondola in 16th-century Venice. The flirtatious couple are at first hidden by a paper flap, as if to preserve their privacy. But the flap can then be lifted, perhaps with a sense of guilty pleasure, to reveal a man and woman seated cosily in a cabin entertained by a lute-player.

Venetian gondolas: The Merchant of Venice

The image in this album seems to have been copied and adapted from a more explicit engraving (also with a moveable flap) in Donato Bertelli’s Vere imagini delle piu nobili citta del mondo (1578). In Bertelli’s version, the couple are clinched in a close embrace with no musician to chaperone them.

Both these images suggest the widespread early modern fascination with Venice, a city that was famous for its gondolas, its beautiful women and its many prostitutes and courtesans. In The Merchant of Venice, a gondola seems to be a symbol of youthful passion and rebellion. ‘Lorenzo and his amorous Jessica’ defy Shylock’s paternal authority when they are seen fleeing ‘in a gondilo’ or gondola (2.8.8). 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).

Koler’s friendship album

The painting forms part of the leather-bound friendship album collected by Erckenprecht Koler from the German town of Nuremberg, who visited Venice in 1588. Like a kind of early autograph album, the book forms a souvenir of the young man’s adventures in Europe. It contains signatures, coats of arms and dedications from fellow-students, professors and friends, alongside vividly coloured paintings dated in Nuremberg and the Italian towns of Venice, Verona and Padua in 1588–1612. These personalised manuscript elements are inserted between the pages of a printed German book with woodcuts, many of which have been hand-coloured.

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, 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.

Miniature paintings

The custom of making friendship albums expanded from students to nobles and other travelling men such as soldiers, lawyers, merchants, teachers and artisans. At first these were adapted (as Koler’s album is) from existing printed works or put together from illustrations cut from printed works. Increasingly, however, people began to use special plain-leaved oblong albums which were filled with a stunning assortment of specially-commissioned illustrations in pen and ink or watercolour.

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.