Courtesan and Blind Cupid, ca. 1588
Pietro Bertelli (Italian, Paduan, active late 16th–early 17th century)
Engraving and etching; sheet: 5 1/2 x 7 1/2 in. (14 x 19.1 cm)
The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1955 (55.503.30)
Venice was famed for its legions of elaborately clad and coiffed courtesans. Foreign visitors marveled at their opulent jewels and abundant application of cosmetics, while civic authorities, when not enlisting them as a deterrent to the rampant scourge of sodomy, decried the courtesans' deliberately misleading resemblance to "honest women."
Capitalizing on their titillating popularity, the enterprising Pietro Bertelli published a series of prints of courtesans, each with a flap that lifted to reveal, below a seemingly innocent exterior, a glimpse of the carnal pleasures for which Venice was famed by its admirers and reviled by its detractors. Here, the flap is the skirt, which can be raised to display the courtesan's undergarments and chopines (the platform shoes that Venetian ladies wore to keep their feet dry in the perpetually damp lagoon city).
These clever and amusing interactive works appropriate the conceit of voyeurism prevalent in erotic imagery and prose. Here, the voyeur is not merely a passive observer but a physically engaged participant whose intervention is required for the salacious content to be exposed. Through the motion of lifting the courtesan's skirt, the observer becomes implicated in a carnal act.