Being Bookish in Venice

Every time I travel I look for some book or bookbinding-related locations in almost every city or town I visit. Past trip to Italy was no exception. Unfortunately, this time we had a very tight schedule (3500 kilometers just in 11 days) and almost no time for museums. However, we had a full day in Venice and I hoped to find something interesting there.

When you buy a ticket to one of the main attractions of Venice — Doge’s Palace — it also allows entry to some of the other museums of the St.Mark’s square. This includes Archaeological Museum and Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Marciana (you have to enter through the Archaeological Museum). The library holds a great collection of manuscripts — you can check its web site or look through the Wikipedia article.

Unfortunately, tourists are allowed to visit only the so-called Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Marciana, and only a couple of them. Rooms are impressive, but this time they were crowded with some temporary exposition that wasn’t even related to book history or the library itself.

You can find some photos of the Monumental Rooms on the web. Here is the only thing that captured my attention there. Check the European part of the map. It is upside down =)

OK, and here are the beautiful Venetian windows:

2016.08.04 - 24 - Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Marciana

The other upsetting encounter was at the Archaeological Museum. Just a few rooms away from the Monumental Rooms of the Biblioteca Marciana you may find a reconstruction of a private library of Pisani family. Here you can get a feeling of visiting an old family library. Walnut bookcases were removed from the palace at San Vidal and exposed here, at the Correr Museum. A bookbinder can try ti find something interesting here, however, as it is often the case, books are stored and exposed in a way that allows almost no chance to see how they are bound. Dust on books and bookshelves of the cabinets was also not very encouraging.

Look closer on the last book — its spine was repaired:

Labels and headbands:

Longstitch bindings:

Some sewn soft cover bindings:

Anyway, my wife was starting to get impatient when I began to photo every shelf, and that was it for us with museums that day.

The other quest of the day was to search for bookbinding shops (legatoria in Italian). The problem is, most of the shops are very tourist oriented. You can find lots of boxes and diaries, all sorts of typical Venetian decorative papers, but that’s it. It is really hard to find something special. A hallmark would be decorative paper with traditional patterns (one of the shops names it Doge’s Paper) — and all the bookbinding products are pasted with it.

On our way through the Venice streets and canals we have found five shops claiming to have some connection to bookbinding tradition. Three of them were pretty similar to each other:

  • Legatoria Polliero (at Fondamenta Campo dei Frari)
  • Workshop of Paolo Olbi (at 3253/A, Dorsoduro)
  • Shop at Calle Zaguri (unfortunately I don’t remember the name or the exact address)

The last shop is the only one to stand out a bit — a paper marbling workshop for tourists is available there. Unfortunately, it looks like the most of the bookbinding shops and workshops are too influenced by the crowds of tourists visiting Venice and prefer to sell standardized goods (even if handmade).

Next to the Zaguri Street you can find a business that claims to be the oldest “Paper Shop” in Europe — Legatoria Piazzesi. Unfortunately, it seems that visits are possible by appointment only. At least I can share with you some photos of typical Venetian bookbinding products made through the window.

There are some other bookbinding shops in Venice but my guess is that most of them would look almost the same. The only exception, a place where the real work is done, was found when we left the tourist-crowded streets.

On the narrow street named Calle del Fumo under the number 5306 one can find a letterpress workshop of Gianni Basso. Looks like he, together with his son, works for his regular customers, not for those coming to Venice just for a short stay.

There is another place in Venice that should be mention here. Unfortunately we had no time to visit San Lazzaro degli Armeni — a small island in the Venetian Lagoon that has been home to the Armenian Catholic Monastery of San Lazzaro since 1717. You can find library, holding the third largest collection of Armenian manuscripts, and a museum there.

Armenia has a long history of interaction with Venice, including book production. The first Armenian books were published in Venice in 1512-1513.

Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera CC BY
Photo by Jean-Pierre Dalbera CC BY

If your experience of Venice’s bookbinding world differs from mine, I’d be glad to see your comments below. If you are one of the bookbinders from Venice and you’d like to share your story, it would be really nice if I can visit your workshop next time I’m in the city =)


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