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What’s Not to Love–rare books and earthly love by night

When pleasures take you by surprise, they are so much sweeter.

Last night we attended a lecture in the rare book room at the Oliveriani Museum in Pesaro. I was not prepared to enjoy it so much. Not one but two notable art history scholars spoke. The discourse was learned, the vocabulary was specialized, and the velocity of the talk far, far, far exceeded my ability to decode. I understood a few words. When they said “because” I got that. When they said “and” I got that. “Book,” yup, I knew that word. And “therefore,” whereupon my heart leapt because often “therefore” signals the end of the discourse. Alas, these times it did not. At some point, the scholar held aloft an old tome, and Tizi leaned over and whispered, “She said that’s Umberto Eco’s favorite book.” Wow!

No, but really, wow.

While I wasn’t listening, I gazed around the room, the rare book room, of course, with a high ceiling and of course frescoes, thinking about what I would photograph later. The putti–Italian word for, like, toddler angels–a bunch of them were up there where the walls joined the ceiling. The pissed off boy with the cow? My favorite. Along with teach a boy to fish and the one who loves his lion.

Then, for real this time, a definitive therefore came, and the presentations were concluded.

After the talk, we got to hold rare books. Forty people in attendance, members of a garden club that Tizi’s cousins, Marisa and Arnoldo belong to, took rare books in their .hands and passed them around. Holding a rare book is, in a word, terrifying. It’s like holding a very old, very important, very delicate baby. Don’t drop it, don’t smudge it, don’t breathe on it. “What about gloves?” someone asked the scholar from Urbino, Nah, she said. Just wash your hands. (She assumed our hands were clean.) Besides, she said, these are not really really rare. They’re just really really old.

At the table, we got close up and personal with Umberto Eco’s favorite book, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, and it was thrilling. The copy in front of us was published in 1499, in Venice, by a very famous printer named Aldus Manutius. After Gutenberg, Manutius looms large in the history of print and book-making.

In the presentation I thought I heard and understood the text was a mixture of Latin and Italian. It was:

What you see above is as inscrutable to the eye as the lecture was to my ear. Some critics, according the the Glasgow Special Collections Department, have dismissed it as unreadable. “This idiosyncratic language would probably have been as difficult for sixteenth century readers as it is today.” But it was beautiful to look at.

Interspersed with text are 172 woodcuts, which I understood just fine.

I did a little research after the talk. Hypnerotomachia Poliphili translates as “The Strife of Love in a Dream.” The main character is Poliphili. It’s his dream and it’s kind of an erotic fantasy; i.e., this is a very old, moderately dirty book. (You see eroto in the title?) And it gets better. Notes on the text in the Glasgow Library indicate the ‘secret’ writer of this erotic fantasy was a Dominican monk called Francesco Colonna. “He belonged to the monastery of SS. Giovanni e Paolo in Venice and it is known that at the supposed time of composition of the work in 1467 he was teaching novices in Treviso.”

Teaching novices by day, dreaming of earthly love by night. He sounds like a human being.

After the event we went for aperitivo in a bar. At our table, at least, we did not talk much about rare books or about gardening. I spoke at length to a marine biologist (pessimistic about the foodchain and life in the seas) and to an agricultural economist who tries to read Shakespeare and describes his English as “globish.”.

We drank wine, we had snacks. Last night, what was not to love?

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