Kasa Dei Libri, Milan. Inside Andrea Kerbaker’s headquarters

A house with thirty thousand books: a Montale volume from the Florence flood, a first edition of Les Misérables – ‘one bookseller thought it was counterfeit.’ The quirks of a collector: Andrea Kerbaker

Thirty thousand books

Andrea Kerbaker’s Kasa Dei Libri in Milan is a book lover’s paradise: thirty thousand books sprawled out everywhere, on shelves going up to the ceiling, stacked on the floor, crammed into every nook and cranny, in the kitchen, and in the bathroom. Books from every period, language, workmanship, and format, divided according to the logic of the owner: antiques and from before the twentieth century; with dedications; foreign; poetry; art books and books on cinema. All browsable, “to overcome the reverential awe that is often felt towards collections,” explains the homeowner.

It is impossible to stop the eye from darting from posters to photomontages, illustrations by Guido Scarabottolo, and works by Francesco Musante, Tullio Pericoli, Mirò’s plates, paper sculptures, ceramics and movie posters. There is also a section dedicated to children’s workshops, where they have created a miniature book city.

“I’ve been going to book stalls since I was nine. I would go to the Senigallia market with my brother and my cousin, who was six years older than me, and skilled at bartering: we’d buy comic books for 50 or 100 lira and sell them at 500. That’s how I made my money,” Andrea Kerbaker smiles. “I was a slip of a thing wandering around the markets. I became friends with the booksellers, and did not ask my father for pocket money. Some of the stalls are still there today – piazza Cairoli, piazza Mercanti, – I go check them out and always try to buy something. They are all friends. They’ll tell me: ‘Have you seen this?’ and I’ll buy it. Some books I only buy because I’m charmed by the bookseller. If I had to estimate how much I spend per year, it wouldn’t be a lot – around five thousand euros. This space has become too small and we are going to expand; I bought a warehouse on Lake Maggiore and soon I will start sending incoming collections there.”

“Monetary and commercial factors don’t come into play for a collector,” says Andrea Kerbaker. “A collector looks for the element that makes a work collectible. I have never been a venal person. I understand that a publisher needs to sell – his is not an act of cultural proselytism, but a trade. For me, the distinction is qualitative. A collection can also include bad books: the value does not lie in the text, but in the object itself. If there are one hundred thousand copies, I’m not interested. The same applies to renown; I do not pursue it. It is incidental. I am of the school of Enrico Cuccia, founder and president of Mediobanca, who steered the entire Italian economy with the saying ‘votes are not counted, they are weighted’.”

“It is rare for me not to know the reason why a book is here. The beauty of buying or receiving a substantial collection is getting to study the person who owned it. My first collection belonged to Cesare Musatt, a Jewish psychologist and the founder of psychoanalysis in Italy. I bought his library in a moment of madness, and I showed up at the doorstep of my now wife with 2000 books in 27 boxes.” 

The worth of the word

It takes intuition and knowledge – and luck. In a bookstore in Rome, Andrea Kerbaker came across a first edition in volumes of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. He saw the value in a volume the bookseller himself had failed to recognize, deceived by where it was printed: Brussels. When Hugo sent Les Misérables to be printed in 1862, after 17 years of work, he was on the island of Guernsey in a self-imposed exile due to disagreements with Napoleon III’s regime. It was there that in 1861 he signed the contract that bound him to a newly founded Belgian publisher, Lacroix (Belgium was sheltered from the censorship of Napoleon III). 

“The Roman bookseller – who is also a friend of mine – did not know this story and believed what he had was a counterfeit edition. I bought it for a few lira anyway because I was interested. Once I got home I analyzed it: it was the authentic first edition. It is worth five thousand euros.”

There are thousands of anecdotes surrounding Montale – the Macedonian edition preceding the 1975 Nobel prize dedicated in Italian to his ‘dear Macedonian readers’, or the one that escaped the Florence flood of 1966. The water had flooded the poet’s library, damaging many volumes, but this one was saved – traces of mud can still be found inside it. Another book, recommended to him by his friend and poet Piero Bigongiari, who Montale sent back with a comment in pencil on the frontispiece – it wasn’t worth reading. Buzzati’s license, Quasimodo’s passion for women, writers recommending each other books, the idiosyncrasies of people who were readers before they became authors.

The dedication room – a book can get your attention with the dedication inside it. “It’s a way to transcend the book industry. A book with several thousand copies is not interesting in terms of collecting. I have many first editions, but that doesn’t mean much anymore: these days, even an unknown author has a first print run of at least a thousand copies. There is also a wide circulation. Compared to the past, volumes are more easily found nowadays. A dedication does not make a volume more rare, but it does make it unique. Except in the case of Tommaso Marinetti, who dedicated all his copies, as my publisher friend Scheiwiller told me.”

“A dedication is almost always a message to an interlocutor who is part of the author’s circle. If you dig, you will find the reason for the dedication. You may discover they made a trip to South America, or something about their personal life; but that of the recipient as well, who oftentimes is also someone of note. There is a tendency to group writers together by where they’re from, where they’re based, sometimes in a somewhat lobbying manner, sometimes by chance. If you were to acquire around forty sizeable collections, you might – for example – discover the reason why Giorgio Soavi’s (who worked for Olivetti) collection included some authors and was missing others. We work by exclusion: why isn’t there even a single book by Ungaretti? Maybe they didn’t run in the same circles? Or had they quarreled? Perhaps he didn’t care for him. When collections are studied, a whole world comes to light.”

Kerbaker is secretary of the Bagutta awards, he is part of the Amici della domenica (Sunday Friends) of the Strega prize, is on the jury of the Malaparte awards and, since last year, serves as director at Tempo di Libri in Milan. Marco Balzano won the Bagutta this year with Resto Qui“I read and reviewed it, Marco is a friend. It is not his best book, my favorite is still his first, Il Figlio del Figlio. No matter what book he is writing, Balzano maintains his high standard of writing. He is in his forties and makes a living from literature, he’s a high school teacher.” Collecting helps to make people understand that success is temporary, ephemeral. “Pavese committed suicide two months after winning the Strega. The variable of contemporary literature is that we should be able to separate the wheat from the chaff, and there is so much chaff these days. I’m a bit conservative, I have always been. The market is not the devil, innovation is fine, but not everything that is new is good just because it is new.”

Italian’s don’t read anymore

Italians don’t read anymore, but it’s not due to paper being overthrown by digital, as some gloomily proclaimed some years ago. “The e-book has not caught on, its popularity has been stagnant at 5% for years – and this number will not increase. Even in America it has remained stable at 20%. We should be attracting non-readers, not those who already read, or avid readers, or it will remain a self-referential discourse. The blurb is usually written by an author unknown to non-readers, and so the message does not reach them.” 

Aldo Manuzio in the sixteenth century had the foresight to make books portable and light, with a non-Gothic and more readable font. Why is it that cursive, invented in Manunzio’s Venetian editions, is called “italics” all around the world, except for in Italy?  “We are not good at selling ourselves. Aside from the discovery, which is German, the whole history of printing is Italian.”

Kasa’s strongpoint  is that most of the material exhibited in the temporary exhibitions is already owned by Kerbaker. The curator’s work consists in finding an interpretation, an unexplored thread, a story: it is a maieutic effort – to bring out what is already within. “I curate the exhibits myself. I follow the red threads – they are like the specializations of a scholar who, by dint of going over a time, becomes an expert. The bonds, the connections arise spontaneously. Some interests are latent, but then one day they come out: why don’t we exhibit this? Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don’t. Not everything can be shown and told.”

In October there was an exhibition on book covers, on contemporary volumes, books from last year, chosen by twenty “tapini”, self-proclaimed expert judges. It gives a bird’s eye view of the editorial graphics industry in Italy: graphics voting on graphics. 

“The exhibition has tried to show what they mean, sometimes they are a tad enigmatic, sometimes very beautiful, often not very commercial. In the midst of those – with three recommendations out of sixty, so not many, – there is Scurati’s M, which sold many copies, which goes to show graphic design is not always disconnected from commercial success. The cover of M is very apt, I don’t know if Scurati himself came up with it, but if he did, it was a clever move on his part, because aside from a strong title, the design has a strong impact, it attracts attention. For the future, I am planning a look at corporate magazines: Olivetti, Eni, Pirelli. That’s my background, corporate communication, and I have always found it a fascinating medium. If we want Italians to read more, we should take a leaf out of the corporate communications book.”

On the upper floor there is a section dedicated to artist books with Matisse covers. One of the books comes from early twentieth-century Paris, when Matisse would hang out with Apollinaire and the poet André Rouveyre. After the untimely death of Apollinaire in 1918, Matisse and Rouveyre decided to make a book dedicated to him (Apollinaire, Raison d’Etre, 1952) with Rouveyre’s texts and eight graphics by the artist: an aquatint and seven black lithographs on a cream background. A lithograph with three faces symbolizes the three friends. There are only 250 of them in the world. “That was an expensive book – I paid 2800 euro for it – but it was the most expensive that year.”

Text Marta Mazzacano

Largo Aldo de Benedetti 4

Milan, Italy