For Paolo Olbi, a Venetian bookbinder and a papermaking craftsman, the Antica Stamperia Armena is the realisation of a lifelong dream.

Located in the Dorsoduro sestiere (neighbourhood) of Venice inside the 18th-Century Ca’Zanobio degli Armeni palazzo – a palace built for the Zenobio family and now owned by the Armenian Mekhitarist Fathers of Venice (an Armenian Catholic congregation) – this traditional bookmaking workshop has an ambitious purpose. With several printing presses, a bookbinding room and a space reserved specifically for training a new generation of bookmakers, Olbi hopes that the Antica Stamperia Armena will restore the glory of Venetian publishing and bring artisanal bookmaking back to Venice.     

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Although Germany is often cited as the birthplace of publishing, thanks to craftsman Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the movable-type printing press in the mid-15th Century, it was the Republic of Venice that gave the industry its major push.

“Since typographic art arrived in Venice in 1469, [the printing industry] underwent an extraordinarily large development because of the features of the lagoon city,” explained Federica Benedetti, a librarian at the Marciana National Library of Venice, one of Italy’s oldest surviving public libraries. “[Venice was] the main naval force in the Mediterranean Sea – it was in the centre of a thick net of commercial relations with the greatest European and non-European powers. Merchants and artisans [brought over] technological innovations and capital.”

With no shortage of raw materials and favourable trading conditions, Venice was well positioned to meet high demands for printed matter in Europe and further afield. 

Printers came here because we had freedom of press

But the city’s dominance in trade wasn’t the only reason publishing thrived in Venice. “The Venetian artisan and commercial world was extremely dynamic and open to novelties,” Benedetti said. One of the richest cities in Europe at the time, the Serenissima – as the Venetian Republic was known – was a cosmopolitan city, a place so powerful and important that even Rome and the Catholic Church often failed to subjugate and censor it. Venice offered a fertile ground for the leap in culture started by Gutenberg’s invention.

“Printers came here because [we] had freedom of press,” Olbi said. “[Venice] was a Republic, not a Signoria [a government run by a lord].”

One of these printers was Aldus Manutius, a humanist and a trained scholar of Greek and Latin classics. Born in Bassiano, a town not far from Rome, Manutius moved to Venice in 1490. Like other scholars, artists and intellectuals, he was attracted by the city’s relative liberty and inspired by the potential of an intellectual renaissance away from the Church’s restrictive grip. He opened a publishing house, the Aldine Press, and in 1495 printed his first book, the Erotemata by Constantine Lascaris. A slew of other texts followed, as Manutius embarked on “an ambitious publishing-educational programme to disseminate and protect the classic Greek and Latin culture,” according to Benedetti. His efforts attracted many known scholars and writers; during his career he’s known to have worked with Desiderius Erasmus, Pietro Bembo and Giovanni Pico.

But in addition to being an intellectual, Manutius was also a visionary. He pioneered the ‘formato in ottavo’ for his classics editions – the printing of small, portable books that measured one eighth of the initial sheet of paper from which they were cut. Predecessors of today’s paperbacks, they were easy to carry around and more affordable to buy. “He was a very entrepreneurial man,” Olbi said. “For us it might be [nothing], but for the epoch that was used to extremely large and heavy books, it was a significant development.”

Changing the aesthetics of the print was another one of Manutius’ accomplishments. While most of his fellow publishers continued to use the Gutenberg-popularised Gothic type, the Aldine Press began to print in ‘aldino’. Widely known today as italics because it was invented in Italy by an Italian, this new font was created by Francesco Griffo, a punch cutter who worked with Manutius.

“[Manutius wanted] something lighter, something less rigid – [he thought] it’d be easier to read Greek and Latin classics in a more modern font,” Olbi said. Manutius also realised that italics took less space on the page than the heavy Gothic characters. This coupled with his new ‘formato in ottavo’ made books more accessible to the general public.

“[They were] cheaper to buy, easier to handle and transport, and they promoted [reading] in environments other than private ones, as well as the widening of the spheres of readers,” Benedetti said.

If previously only the selected few – the aristocracy and the clergy – had access to books, now many in the middle class could afford to own them.

Although at the forefront of the industry, Manutius and the Aldine Press weren’t alone in building Venice’s booming publishing scene. “Other prestigious publisher families established themselves [in Venice] – the Sessa, the Giunta, the Scoto and the Giolito,” Benedetti said. “In the 15th and 16th Centuries, it was the main city in publishing, covering between 48.6% and 54% of the total [Italian book production].” Close to 250 publishers – both large and small – operated in the city during the 16th Century, resulting in the printing of at least 25,000 editions of books and making Venice the de-facto centre of European publishing.

For scholars, editors, writers and translators, this meant an irrefutable earning potential; many could now live off their craft. “The growth in publishing activity [in Venice] attracted many intellectuals by offering them concrete job opportunities,” Benedetti said. “Between 1530 and 1560, many scholars were active in Venice, coming not only from different areas of Italy but also from abroad.” The diversity of the city’s population – as a commerce hub, Venice attracted immigrants from many countries – led to books being printed in a variety of languages. In addition to Greek, there were editions in Glagolitic (the oldest known Slavic script), German, Hebrew, Arabic and Armenian, among many others.

One of the more active communities in printing, the Armenians were instrumental in developing the city’s publishing industry largely thanks to the Armenian Mekhitarist Congregation whose monastery on the island of San Lazzaro became home to one of Venice’s most important printing houses. It’s only fitting then that the same congregation decided to support the resurgence of traditional bookmaking in modern Venice by welcoming Olbi to open his workshop in their palazzo.

At 81, Olbi is one of Venice’s most famous bookbinders and the only one with his own printing press. For more than 50 years he’s been working with paper, making hand-bound notebooks, leather-embossed photo albums and hand-printed diaries. He’s owned several shops, one of which still exists today, and trained almost 100 bookbinders in an effort to keep the city’s bookmaking traditions alive. When Anna Scovacricchi, one of his apprentices, invited him to come to the 2018 Homo Faber exhibition (a showcase for the best examples of European craftsmanship), Olbi was overwhelmed.

“The most beautiful things are made by hand,” he told me, choking up.

But seeing the beauty at the exhibition also left him dismayed at what had happened in Venice. “It’s not possible that a city like this has become so cheesy,” he said, referring to the proliferation of cheap trinket shops where artisans and craftsmen had previously thrived. “We are the sinner; we’re responsible for [this deterioration of culture] that has transpired.”

The most beautiful things are made by hand

Resurrecting the glory of the Venetian artisanal bookmaking has always been Olbi’s objective, but after the exhibition he saw it was possible. With the Antica Stamperia Armena, he’s building a cultural centre dedicated to the art of the book. His intention is to go back to the roots – “start from the book,” as he says – to attract young people interested in craftsmanship and to pass the skills of Venetian printing to this new generation. “Let’s train these hands to be the best with our own traditions,” Olbi said.

Scovacricchi, who has an art background, is one of two apprentices currently working in Olbi’s workshop. “I've always loved books, especially as objects,” she said. “I love the smell of the paper, to touch them, to use my hands to create them, and also to draw.” Scovacricchi wants to help Olbi realise his vision of a centre where artisans, artists and writers come together to learn about the art of bookmaking. “We, the young generations, can save this incredible heritage and make Venice alive again,” she said.

But the project isn’t without its difficulties. There is acqua alta, Venetian high tide, that often wreaks havoc in the ground-level space of the workshop. There is also the lack of funding for renovations or to pay artisans and apprentices for their work. But both Olbi and Scovacricchi are optimistic. Everything they’ve been able to achieve has been thanks to Olbi’s persistence and his belief that the art of Venetian bookmaking must again – just like during the times of Manutius – be an integral part of Venice.

“My job is to transmit all my know-how, skills and passion to the new generation,” Olbi said. “We are the last of Manutius, [and for now] we are the only ones.”

Places That Changed the World is a BBC Travel series looking into how a destination has made a significant impact on the entire planet.

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