Concealed letters, competent readers. Trompe l’oeil books expressing Enlightenment views on education

Activity: Lecture / PresentationAcademic


This paper presents two eighteenth century Dutch trompe l’oeil books that tie in with innovative ideas on how to teach reading and writing in the age of Enlightenment. This relatively unknown genre consists of handwritten books that not only offer a meticulous imitation of a printed book (in one case a traditional ABC book, in the other a songbook with three popular songs, both in black letter), but they also pretend to include loose, smaller leaves with printed images, songs or texts (in both cases in roman type). The books are designed in such a way that the handwritten page and the image that seems to be painted over it are one inseparable whole. The effect is that the original text on the pages is concealed by the images and thus rendered illegible. The book becomes a self-consuming artefact, in the sense that it undermines the very goal that it seems to serve, which is to be read. Clearly these books could not have been used by young children learning how to read. Inspired by earlier work by Dror Wahrman on trompe l’oeil paintings and by Feike Dietz on media literacy I will argue that these books can be seen as a critical response to traditional reading methods. They are aimed at advanced readers, who needed to be able to read all kinds of letters (traditional and modern), and who needed to be able to read images as well as texts, and deal with contradictory meanings. In both books, Roman type is favoured over Gothic type, the reader is challenged to interpret images and texts (and the connections between them), and the observer is warned to watch attentively, for example by including a painted pair of glasses at the beginning of the ABC book. This fits in with the Enlightenment idea that learning how to read is paired with learning how to reason. By concealing traditional texts in traditional lettering and offering Roman letters and images instead, these trompe l’oeil books can be seen as an exercise in media literacy to make truly competent readers.
Period27 Jun 2015
Event titleKnowledgeable Youngsters: Youth, Media and Early Modern Knowledge Societies
Event typeConference
LocationUtrecht, NetherlandsShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational