Italy Daily
October 2001


Judging a book by its cover
Roman Bookbinder, Daniela Bevilacqua, 79, puts pages together the old-fashioned way

"It seems there is
always room for
tradition, at least in
Bevilacqua’s small
workshop in Monteverde.

Here the 79-year-old
artisan restores battered
antique volumes, as well
as creating new books
from scratch."


Milton wrote that "a good book is the precious lifeblood of a master spirit, embalmed and treasured up on purpose to a life beyond life." Indeed, great attention is paid to who and what fills pages – and rightly so. But the role of the craftsman is all too often overlooked.

Bookbinders, such as Rome’s Daniela Bevilacqua, practice a centuries-old art, the careful shaping, stitching and embossing of manuscripts by hand. The discipline survived the birth of printing presses – and remains defiant in the face of the digital onslaught and still-unproven e-books.

It seems there is always room for tradition, at least in Bevilacqua’s small workshop in Monteverde. Here the 79-year-old artisan restores battered antique volumes, as well as creating new books from scratch.

Raw materials clutter the narrow space: tottering stacks of paper, rusty scissors, scrolls of cloth, scraps of leather and vellum, a plastic sack of glue and knobby boars-hair brush. Fierce old machines – dark with oil and time – stand guard. Phone numbers are scrawled on the yellowed and cracked walls.

A portrait of Padre Pio smiles down benevolently on the whole scene, as Bevilacqua dashes back and forth, explaining his business in a torrent of words. Occasionally he trails off into a grumble, overwhelmed by the radio blaring pop music. Then he’s off again, mixing in tales of Mussolini and POW camp with demonstrations of this book’s heft, that book’s height, another’s mildewed pages.

He darts over to one of the behemoth machines, used for chopping uniform paper edges. It can also, he explains, chop unwary fingers and arms – even heads. "This is very, very dangerous. I have only cut off a piece of fingernail. I was lucky."

The German model is over 100 years old. "In modern machines there is a security system so you can not hurt yourself. I would prefer a newer one, a better one," he shrugs and smiles. In the meantime, Bevilacqua will continue to work by hand, in the traditional method.

His wooden sewing frame stands near the shop entrance. The instrument is a simple one, which tightly clamps the book as the relegatore stitches. Three strands of cotton twine run from top to bottom. This durable technique, dating back to the 12th century, leaves bands on the spine – this mark of excellence is sometimes faked by ambitious publishers. Other books are held together only by glue, a process known as perfect binding.

His techniques are basic, yet effective, as the rows of completed volumes attest. Bevilacqua both binds and restores books, mainly for foreign academies in Rome: the Americans, British, French, Dutch and Finns. "Those are great libraries," he announces with a sly grin, "and stranieri pay their bills more quickly."

However, routine commissions don’t absorb all his time. Bevilacqua tackles many small projects, such as dissertations, photo albums, collections of magazines. "I once bound a volume for the Pope Paul II," he says. "And I sometimes do work for the Chamber of Deputies."

His bookbinding career began at age 14 in Trastevere, his local neighbourhood. "I earned 26 lire for each morning’s work as an apprentice," he recalls. During these early years, he once met Mussolini. " Our Young Fascists group was camping near the Palace of Sports and Il Duce came to visit. I met him face-to-face, and gave him a loaf of French bread. He looked very stern. Then we all marched and saluted, wearing small muskets and gas masks," Bevilacqua shakes his head in wonder. "What were we thinking?"

Soon he was caught up in the war, serving as a radio-telegraph operator in Albania and Greece. The young corporal eventually was taken prisoner by the Germans and wound up in a POW camp on Corfu. "We were so hungry that we ate ants. They gave us small amounts of pasta and beans, but no way of cooking them.

"There were many pines nearby, but when anyone climbed up to get branches, the Germans fired into the trees. Finally we were so desperate that we dug up the cemetery, put the bodies back in the earth and burnt the coffins to cook."

Upon return to Italy, Bevilacqua continued his association with the armed forces – as a civilian bookbinder. He spent 38 years restoring books part-time for the Marine and Military Ministry, while maintaining the Monteverde workshop. Even after 65 years in the trade, his enthusiasm remains fresh and infectious.

Bookbinding, as we know it, was born around the 4th century AD. Previously the word biblos – book – meant a papyrus scroll, an unwieldy device. The Coptic Egyptians were the first to lash flat pages together with a cover and the Eastern Mediterranean cultures soon followed suit. This codex form, derived from the shape of Roman writing tablets, now dominates publishing world-wide.

Yet for centuries, books were a rare luxury. Manuscripts were copied by hand, usually by monastic orders, who also bound the volumes. However, in the 1400s, paper prices fell and movable-type printing boosted production. Suddenly books were big business.

Italy has always been renown for its bookbinding. This country pioneered limp binding, an early form of paperback, as well as gold embossing. Its elegant marbled papers have been exported for end-papers since the 17th century. And many of the classic bookbinding styles – spare and simple Aldine, classical Etruscan and ornate Maioli – began on this peninsula.

Customising was quite common until the 19th century. A book’s owner could select the style of binding, then splurge on luxury materials and extra decoration. Mass-manufacturing shifted these decisions to the publishers, but the "private library" look remained desirable. In fact, custom-binding currently is enjoying a revival in the most unlikely of places: Hollywood.

Movie director Martin Scorsese often binds his working scripts in fine leather, and Robert de Niro and Harvey Keitel are regular customers of an elite American bookbinder. Spike Lee has his original screenplays – scrawled in the director’s longhand – preserved in book form. Even romance-queen Danielle Steel transforms her paperback romances into distinguished leather volumes.

Despite its trendiness, bookbinding has not changed drastically since the Renaissance, according to Bevilacqua. The materials have evolved slightly, but the process remains true to tradition, especially in a small artisan’s shop.

"The quality of leather and paper have both improved. We no longer use destructive acids and dyes," he says. "Also we have inexpensive plastic-coated paper which is good for covers because it keeps the book dry."

Yet leather remains the most desirable material – hard-wearing and attractive. Bevilacqua works with the full range: goatskin (known as morocco); calfskin with its rich brown tones; poorer quality sheepskin and vellum; even rexine, a water- and stain-proof fake leather.

The best bookbinding leathers are vegetable-tanned, which makes them soft and impressionable. Such materials are five to ten times as expensive as the finest leathers used for shoes and jackets. Of course, that’s conservative compared to the gem-encrusted volumes popular during the Middle Ages.

Nonetheless, Bevilacqua spends his days both repairing and creating heirlooms.

"A good book should be a work of art – inside and out," he concludes.

Legatoria Monteverde is located on Via Francesco Daverio 28, Roma.

"Our Young Fascists
group was camping
near the Palace of
Sports and Il Duce
came to visit. I met
him face-to-face,
and gave him a loaf
of French bread.

He looked very stern.
Then we all marched
and saluted, wearing
small muskets and gas
masks," Bevilacqua
shakes his head.
"What were we
thinking?"

"There were many
pines nearby, but when
anyone climbed up to get
branches, the Germans
fired into the trees.

Finally we were so
desperate that we dug up
the cemetery, put the
bodies back in the
earth and burnt the
coffins to cook."


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