By Umberto Pregliasco
Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counsellors, and the most patient of teachers.
(Charles W. Eliot)
ALAI, the Italian Association of Antiquarian Booksellers
All the three generations of Pregliasco have dedicated themselves with enthusiasm to the fate of ALAI: Lorenzo was one of the founders of what was then a Club in 1948; Arturo has been its President from 1970 to 1976, organizing a memorable World Congress in Venice in 1985 with Vittorio Soave, while Umberto was president from 2004 to 2010. The Anglo-Saxons use a very appropriate expression, “to serve as the President”, and a typical Piedmontese attention for the association is always present within the family, with the seriousness and the commitment that it requires.
The position within the institution has seen Umberto being very active in participation to meetings – on bibliophiles, relationships with public libraries, safeguarding precious books – organized within contexts of exhibits in Rome at Palazzo Venezia in 2004, in Florence at Palazzo Corsini in 2005, at the Torino Book Fair in 2007, in Milan in May of 2008, and, starting in 2006, all the ones held in Bologna. These events have hosted important conferences with prominent personalities, such as “Culture and Book-collecting” with Giulio Andreotti, “When books were expensive” with Luciano Canfora; and – maybe among the happy few all over the world - had the chance to held four lectures together with Umberto Eco.
Truly, associating with bad books is often more dangerous than associating with bad people.
ILAB-LILA gathers about 2,000 antiquarian bookshops from all over the world and it forms a true “International” of culture, abolishing any possible border with its own deontological code and its own traditions, uniting the most different persons and languages, under the banner “Amor Librorum Nos Unit” (The Love of Books Unites Us) – and a more appropriate one would be hard to find. “Considering the dubiety with which our activities were treated it is pleasant to record that the Congresses in London in 1949 and in Paris in 1950 were very successful both socially and professionally, while the standard of hospitality in both cities was impeccable.” (Percy H. Muir, Chairman of the Preliminary Conference)The World Congress and the related exhibition are a commitment that the countries that are members of the Association take turn in organizing, and are a privileged time to examine the problems related to this profession and to the antiquarian market, and also to make friends. Italy had hosted it in 1953 in Milan, in 1964 in Ravenna and in 1986 in Venice; in 2010 Umberto was responsible for organizing the one in Bologna, trying to get the city and young people involved and to make the rare book as “spectacular” as possible, in fact for the very first time it has been the focus of a great festival dedicated also to those who were not in the field. Thanks to the participation of more than 120 exhibitors, the Antique Book Fair has occupied the whole Palazzo Re Enzo: it has been an occasion that probably cannot be matched for the Italian bibliophiles, the largest cultural event in its kind ever put together in Italy. Following this success the Italian booksellers shall at last be considered to match up with the cultural and typographical patrimony of their country. And if the small ALAI brand shall finally have a commercial and ethical importance, it will be thanks to the new awareness of this association that represents almost 120 bookshops and that for years has been cooperating to safeguard the book patrimony with institutions. Libraries and Museums of Bologna have put their trust into the project, organizing memorable exhibits at the Archiginnasio, at the University Library and at the Music Museum. More than 500 among the most important rare book dealers and experts came to Italy from all over the world to spend a week full of cultural highlights. For one week Bologna – home of the world’s oldest university – became the world’s capital of the book with its magnificent historic sites and bibliophile treasures, with visits to all the important libraries and collections of the region, with concerts and lectures, and even a murder-party in a library and a football match “Italy vs Rest of the World”. We were congratulated “on a hugely successful week, and the great service which their hard work and meticulous planning has rendered to the ILAB”.
A good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life.
The Cineteca of Bologna has realized a medley of the most relevant scenes related to the antiquarian bookseller’s job, selected through a series of interviews taken among booksellers, with the contribution of a few American Universities. Besides the usual meetings, visits to the most important libraries in Emilia-Romagna have been organized, together with a great many conferences. Almost two thousand persons, among whom there were many young people, have gathered in the splendid Aula Magna of Santa Lucia, where both Umberto Eco’s lecture and the literary-musical lectio magistralis by the well-known Italian pop-singer Roberto Vecchioni took place. Reckoning that the antique books have an enormous cultural potential that can be suitable for modern contexts, for the first time we decided to put it side by side with contemporary music. From Ancient Greece to the modern songwriters was the lecture theme, and it indeed charmed the public. The Professor has spoken about musical poetic forms from Saffo to De André and he has explained the personal or cultural reasons that have led him to use some literary sources. As a matter of fact, in many of his texts there are authors and characters that become like some of the songwriter’s “doubles”, in which he projects something of himself, from Homer to Dante, from Cervantes to Defoe, from Rimbaud to Oscar Wilde, from Cesare Pavese to Fernando Pessoa. For example, in “Le lettere d’amore” (Love letters), Vecchioni has managed in a few verses to highlight the complexity of the Portuguese poet: “Pessoa closed his glasses and fell asleep. Those who were writing for him left him alone and he finished hiding behind so many names, forgetting about Ophelia. Too late he understood that inside that Tabacaria there was more life than in all of his poetry”. Pessoa, before dying, realizes the failure of his own personal life in spite of the literary one: although through his heteronyms he wrote hundreds of poems, he never wrote any love letters to Ophélia Queiroz.
How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book.
(Henry David Thoreau)
ILAB, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers
We asked Arnoud Gerits, who was elected ILAB President righthere in Bologna, to give us his ideas about the past and the future of the League, which we are happy to publish below: “The idea of forming an international organisation of antiquarian booksellers that would beneficially link various national associations was conceived by the Dutch bookseller and President of the Nederlandsche Vereeniging van Antiquaren (NVvA) Menno Hertzberger. As a Jew, Hertzberger had spent part of the Second World War hiding from the Nazis. The war had divided the continent, if not indeed the world, into opposing nations, and the scale of destruction, both material and immaterial, was almost beyond the imaginable. Menno Hertzberger wished to reunite his colleagues that had been separated by the war. His aims went far beyond anything the antiquarian booksellers had thought of before: establishing international peace through cultural exchange and open markets:
“Five long years had put up extra barriers between nations. There was no communication. This enforced extra chauvinism and worse, hatred. Was there a possibility to do something about interhuman relationship, to bring nations more together? This was my dream; but how could it be realized? Only on common ground, on mutual interests, and therefore, for an antiquarian bookseller, by his love, the book!”
In 1947 representatives from Great Britain, France, Denmark, Sweden and The Netherlands met in Amsterdam for a Preliminary Conference. In the same year a group of Italian dealers, among them the Libreria Pregliasco, met in Milan to give life to the Circolo dei Librai Antiquari, that later became the Associazione Librai Antiquari d’Italia (ALAI). In 1948, when the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) was officially incorporated in Copenhagen, booksellers from Italy were among the congress delegates. In his opening speech Einar Grønholt Pedersen, President of the Danish Association, gave an impressive definition of the aims and responsibilities of all ILAB dealers:
“The commodity we handle - the book - is, I daresay, about the most international thing on the world market. It is the support of the research worker and the scientist, the indispensable tool of the intellectual worker thirsting for knowledge. It satisfies the desires of all thinking and sensitive individuals. It is the inspiration behind new ideas, new deeds - and last, but not least, it fulfils a great mission in enlightening the masses. Our mission is to find the right book, preserve and finally convey it to wherever it is needed and can bring benefit or pleasure. A mission which, by its very nature, imposes upon us a responsibility which we must not neglect.”
In its 60 years of existence, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers has become a real global network, and the aims are still the same: to foster friendship and understanding between the nations as the mutual basis for a fair international trade, to uphold and improve high professional standards and to contribute in various ways to a broader appreciation of the history and art of the book. Today ILAB has as its members 22 national associations representing 32 countries and around 2,000 antiquarian booksellers. Since 1947, ILAB affiliates and bibliophiles have met on 39 ILAB Congresses all over the world: the Bologna Congress was an exceptional event, first and most of all thanks to the brilliant organisation of the ALAI. This recent event has proved that ILAB Congresses and Antiquarian Book Fairs are excellent places to get in contact, to buy books with confidence, to find new friends, to meet old ones, to be a part of the international family of book lovers and to enjoy the wonderful world of bibliophily. The ILAB Breslauer Prize for Bibliography is awarded every fourth year to the most outstanding work on the history of the book. The ILAB Code of Ethics defines the rules and regulations of the trade and the high standards to which each ILAB bookseller must adhere. The ILAB Stolen Books Database combats book thefts worldwide. And finally, the ILAB website is the meeting point for bibliophiles. ILAB.org contains a wealth of information for every person interested in books, manuscripts, autographs and prints, from interviews with booksellers and articles about the world of books to the definitions of the trade and a calendar of book-related events, while the ILAB Book Search presents the high quality offers of the ILAB dealers and brings customers in direct contact with the world’s leading experts.
Our Italian colleagues Arturo (who was member of the ILAB Committee) and Umberto (who gave the recent Congress in Bologna, which no ILAB delegate will ever forget) have always played an important part in the international trade and in the International League. Today, 2000 antiquarian booksellers from 32 countries organized in 22 national associations worldwide congratulate the Libreria Pregliasco to its 100th anniversary and to 100 years of success in the antiquarian book trade!”
Arnoud Gerits, ILAB President
To be continued ...
Part 6 of "Living With - And From - Books: A Century of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books of Literature, Fine Arts, Science and First Editions", published by Umberto Pregliasco on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Libreria Antiquaria Pregliasco. The text is presented here by permission of the author.