gall and gumption

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Epistle from Italy: At the Tipoteca

The director of the Fondazione Tipoteca Italiana, Sandro Berra, speaks English about as well as I speak Italian—which is to say we can both get by—so we trade back and forth with the two languages, sometimes one, sometimes the other. He is a stocky, handsome, confident guy in his 40s, with a generous, amiable personality, and an easygoing manner. I admire his use of English but I prefer him to speak Italian, because he gets more animated and uses idiomatic expressions that I’m just now beginning to understand and appreciate. He also does two things that I love when I’m talking to Italians, he uses hand gestures, and he makes noises.

The gestures are classic ones: wagging his hand at the wrist, pointing and jabbing with the tips of his fingers, rotating his hands one around the other, shrugging his shoulders with the whole upper part of his arms including his elbows. One day he was talking about using the telephone and he jostled his hand next to his face with the thumb and little finger extended. That one I love!

Even when I was riding with him in his car one day he got on his cell phone, and with one hand holding the phone to his ear he began gesturing with his other hand as he spoke—no hands holding the steering wheel. Given the treacherous free-for-all of Italian highways, and the fact that the passenger-side seatbelt of his car is broken, this was a little disconcerting.

The noises are more subtle and difficult to describe. They are the equivalent in English of when we say, “umm” or “uh huh” but in Italian they use the sounds more often and they squeeze them in-between and around sentences. They are usually nasal in tone and express doubt, irritation, confusion, humor, confidence, disappointment, and a whole variety of other emotions. They might begin as a word, like “bene” (well), and then just trail off into a sound, “behhhhh…” They are the glue that holds the Italian language together, and makes it flow like music. Sandro does it exceptionally well.

The Fondazione Tipoteca is this amazing place in the small town of Cornuda, in the foothills of the Italian Alps where, in 1995, the contemporary printing company Grafiche Antiga set up a museum and learning center for antique letterpress printing equipment. The first time I went there I felt like I had died and gone to book printer’s heaven. It’s a huge manufacturing warehouse that’s been transformed (with a LOT of money) into a modern sleek workshop with probably fifty different letterpresses of various sizes, and all the accompanying bookmaking equipment and paraphernalia: typecasting machines, book presses, binding equipment, paper trimmers, linotype machines. They also have endless rows of type cabinets containing an amazing variety of type, including the largest selection of Italian modernist wood display typefaces anywhere. This is the kind of large wooden type, cut by hand, that would have been used to create Futurist and Bauhaus posters and manifestos at the beginning of the last century, and it’s in perfect condition. It takes your breath away to see it---or mine anyway.

To my great pleasure Sandro has essentially given me free reign of the place. The other day he left me there by myself to peruse the library (with valuable old books by Aldus Manutius and others—usually it’s kept locked, but he just handed me the key), and tinker with the type, while he went off to run some errands. I’ve discovered through extensive, interesting, bilingual conversation that Sandro and I are “d’accordo” (of the same mind) about many things, including politics, religion, humanism, and most importantly, printing. We share a suspicion of much contemporary “cutting-edge” artists’ book/sculpture fabrications, and a love of reading, and clear, legible, classically based typographic composition. He prefers to sit down and get lost in the writing of a well-printed book, to participating in the materials fetishism of most avant-garde book arts monstrosities. It’s so satisfying to find someone in charge of such a great printing facility who actually loves books! Soon I will be working at the Tipoteca, setting and printing text.

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