That Old Italian Opera Book

Old Italian opera book
Title page of the Pietro Metastasio opera book.

Here’s what I know about this old book whose pages have puffed out the covers because moisture made the pages swell.  I picked it up for $25 in used bookstore in Maryland. 

It was published in 1764 in Venice.  The book contains the libretti (words) of an Italian poet and librettist. Pietro Metastasio, considered the most important writer of opera libretti during this period.  He spent his time between Venice and Vienna, opera capitals of the then world.

This guy was opera writing machine.

More than 800 operas have a libretto by Metastasio.    Handel and Gluck wrote music to Metastasio librettos as did Mozart.

The book is made up of two volumes. I have a 12th printing, implying that this opera author was a best-seller.  But after all this is Italy.

I love holding the book.  Despite the fact, that it’s over 250 years old, the paper is not brittle, but lovely, soft, strong and quite white with a few blotches on some pages.  Back then, paper was made out of old linen and hemp rags, which were spread out in fields, and repeatedly bleached in the sun.  The cover is made out of vellum, calf skin.

I’m not sure why I bought this book.  I don’t read Italian, I don’t particularly like opera.  And the book is warped as a friend reminded me.

spine of old Italian book
Spine of the book

I love a good mystery.  So I imagine the story behind this 4 by 6 inch book.  How did it get from a Venetian publisher to a second hand used book store in Maryland, where hundreds of books are stacked on mental shelves?  How many Italians held this book in the 1700’s and 1800’s?  When and how did it get to the United States?   Did this book survive two world wars, or was it already safely in the United States?

But I do know that by holding this book and thumbing through the pages, I’m part of a chain of book lovers going back nearly 300 years.  I’ve never been a part of such a lengthy chain.  And what fun is that?



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