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?



Only in Venice

Venice books
Much of the material for this blog piece comes from the book, “Bound in Venice.”

If you traveled back in time to Venice in the latter half of the 1400’s, you would have encountered dozens and dozens of bookshops and printers. An unusual, almost revolutionary sight indeed. Because within two or three decades, “publishing” had gone from monks painstakingly copying a miniscule number manuscripts, to a mechanical mechanism that published thousands of books.

Gutenberg may have invented the printing press and moveable type in Germany, but it was the city of Venice that rocked when it came to publishing in the 15th and 16th centuries. Without Venice, Gutenberg’s invention might have languished for years.

During this time, half the books in all of Europe were printed in this sea side city. Venice publishers printed the first Talmud, the first Koran, the first book in Greek and the second Bible in vernacular (Italian). They revolutionized punctuation, more or less invented the paper-back, printed the first best-seller (it sold 100,00 copies, an impressive figure even in this day and age), the first printed text of cosmetology, and some of the first medical texts.

The list continues: the first book on chocolate, and the first song books with musical notes (a challenging task for the printer). Of course, no publishing mecca would be complete without the first printed porn book, Salacious sonnets sonetti lussuriosi, by Pietro Aretino. The author was known to remark that the women in Venice were so beautiful, that they made him forget his male lover.

While the rest of Europe was slogging around in pig muck and ignorance (most of the population couldn’t read), a quarter of the male population between the ages of 6 and 15 in Venice attended school and a sophisticated bunch of citizens treasured some of the most beautiful books ever printed. Intellectuals met in Venice bookstores to discuss the issues of the day.

Why was Venice the publishing capitol of the civilized world during this time? Venice was one the three biggest cities (Naples and Paris were the other two) in Europe with a population of over 150,000. Alpine streams gushed with water, making paper production possible—a task that needs enormous amounts of water. The city had literate citizens, and was at the center of trading routes between Europe and the Middle East which meant they had plenty of capital.

Venice had the three characteristics necessary for becoming the information capitol of the then world: Industrialization, globalization, and marketing. Venice’s importance rivals the importance of today’s information giants: Google, Facebook, Apple (all who are located in one place, California’s “Silicon Valley”) and Microsoft.

Finally, the German city of Mainz (where Gutenberg lived and made his inventions) was sacked in 1462, driving many printers and punch cutters into exile and they settled in Venice, a place very hospitable to the printing trade and in need of their skills.

The publishing period between 1450 and 1501 (Gutenberg’s first Bible was printed in 1452) is known as the “incunabula,” Latin for swaddling clothes or cradle. It is an arbitrary date, but it was during this transition period—from hand-written manuscripts to printed words—that many innovations took place. The inclusion of title pages, pagination, the author’s name, colophons (name, date and place of publishing), the printer’s mark, and indexing, none of which were present in manuscripts. All these characteristics are still present in today’s printed books.

Of course, nothing lasts forever. Venice lost its coveted position of being the center of trading routes, as the British, the Spaniards, and French took the lead in discovering new worlds. Trade routes shifted from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean—the route to North America.

The Catholic Church, always a stickler for censorship decided that Venice, which had been fairly independent, should bear the brunt of censorship. Northern Europe, where the Protestant reformation took place, was protected from the Roman Inquisition, and a free press resulted. So publishers moved up north.

By the middle of the 16th century the book burning had begun in Venice. First came the bonfires of Protestant books and then the burning of all kinds of books. If the publishers were smart they wisely disappeared before the bonfires. Rome produced an index of condemned books which had to be strictly followed. The number of printing shops greatly declined. And the golden age of Venetian printing became history.

It’s become a truism to say that, “Venice was the Silicon Valley of publishing.” But that’s backwards. “Silicon Valley is the Venice of (internet) publishing.”

A Book Bindery in Cuba—Ediciones Vigia

Without paper, it’s tough to make a book. Before Gutenberg’s press, sheepskin and calf-skin were used to make parchment and vellum on which monks painstakingly crafted manuscripts—a process that could take up to a year or more.

Shelves of hand-made books at the Ediciones Vigia
Shelves of hand-made books at the Ediciones Vigia

Which brings us to Cuba. Since the Cuban revolution (1953-1959), consumer goods, including paper, have been in short supply. Paper is a luxury item and you can’t waste paper on a book! (The Island has periodic toilet paper shortages.)

Nonetheless, in 1985, Ediciones Vigia (which means, Watchtower Editions), an independent book bindery collective, was established in Matanzas, situated on a bay of the same name, some fifty miles from Havana. The collective is housed in an old renovated colonial house on Watchtower Square which overlooks the San Juan River. A friend who recently visited Cuba brought back a book for me from the bindery.

Despite the paucity of paper, this book collective makes beautiful and artistic books using a wide variety of found and repurposed materials: craft and copier paper, crayons, yarn, leaves, cloth, wood scraps and items donated by international visitors. In the early days of the bindery, artists recycled the brown paper used in butcher shops, upon which to craft and illustrate books.  The bindery uses only two mechanical devices: a borrowed mimeograph machine and a typewriter. As a result, the artists and writers use their hands and imagination to craft these beautiful books. The collective makes a limited run (a maximum of 200 copies) of each book.

Purchased books from the Ediciones Vigia
Purchased books from the Ediciones Vigia (photo on the right shows the trademark on the back of the books)

Ediciones Vigía concentrates on printing poetry, short stories, literary criticism, and children’s literature. Some of the texts are original, while others are existing works by famous writers, such as the poems by Emily Dickenson or Jorge Luis Borges.

The British Museum and the Library of Congress both own books made by the Collective. You can currently only buy these sought-after books at the bindery itself. No stores sell them–not even in Havana. Nor can the books be purchased by mail or on the Internet (they have no web site).

You will have to take a journey. You must fly to Havana, and hire a car and driver and make the 50 mile trip to a colonial house perched on the bank of the San Juan River. Once there, you will enter a space with high ceilings, shelves of handmade books, and a couple of rocking chairs. And your book will be wrapped in plain paper when you leave.

Thomas Jefferson once said, “I cannot live without books.”It seems, some Cuban book artists echo his sentiments.

%d bloggers like this: