The Sunken Library
Sergio Bertelli - 2009
For days on end a leaden sky had poured torrents of rain down on Florence. But that night of the 3-4 November 1966 the Arno was no longer able to drain off the waters streaming from its tributaries and the Ponte Vecchio acted as a dam. The river over- flowed at dawn. I had only recently moved to what was to become my new home town. I had rented an apartment in a villa at Bellosguardo. I noticed nothing amiss, immersed as I was in my work, when I had a telephone call from Marco Chiarini, the art historian and impassioned curator of Palazzo Pitti, who lived in Borgo San Jacopo, telling me that the water had invaded the staircase of his building and he was marooned. When at last I realized that the flood waters had got as far as Piazza Pitti my thoughts flew at once to the Biblioteca Nazionale. The following morning I was in what had once been Piazza de’ Cavalieri, now completely unrecognizable. The piazza and the Lungarno degli Arazzieri were one with the river. The sand had assumed the forms of the impetuous waves which had overflowed the banks. Clusters of young people like swarms of bees were busy searching for books sunk under the water and mud. A restorer explained to us that we had to put the books on edge, not lying flat, so that the water could drain off and allow the clay that imprisoned them to dry. In the evening, when I came home an American friend, Samuel Bernard, a fellow scholarship-holder at Villa I Tatti, told me that at the State Archives the situation was tragic beyond words: everyone was thinking about the Library. The Director of the Archives, Sergio Camerani, was locked in his office with his head in his hands, incapable of issuing orders. Next morning, in the courtyard of the Uffizi, I found Mina Gregori and Alvaro González-Palacios, who had rushed to the spot, worried about the gallery’s depositories. Cimabue’s crucifix was already irremediably damaged, but we could still join forces to save the Archive’s files and codices. On the spur of the moment, we set ourselves up as a committee of public safety. We took over from Camerani. Our first thought was to intercept the young people on their way to the Library and divert them to the Archives. Guido Pampaloni (who would later be appointed as Director of the Archives) was dispatched to Prato to find shelving, while Roberto Abbondanza, at that time Director of the State Archives in Perugia, arrived with two enormous lorries belonging to Gondrand the shippers: the entire collections of the “Suppressed Monasteries” were transported to the drying-house of the tobacco factory in Perugia. Meanwhile, from the U.S. base at Tombolo, Samuel Bernard managed to obtain an electricity generator which enabled us to go down to the cellars and form human chains to bring to light all the submerged material. A couple of days later, after an eventful journey, my sister Livia arrived from Rome with a suitcase full of anti-tetanus and anti-typhus shots, so we were able to improvise an infirmary in the reading room to vaccinate all the volunteers.
I have a vivid memory of the courtyard of the Uffizi: lines and lines of hundreds of clay bricks that in reality were not bricks at all. The silt from the river had turned all the volumes into compact blocks, which now the loving hands of hundreds of volunteers, young people from all over the country, were trying to bring back to life. Important relics from our past were in danger of vanishing for ever, erased from our memory. The Arno had been transformed into Lethe, the river in which souls are immersed, to forget their sins. The river into which Matilda drew Dante (“Up to my throat she in the stream had drawn me”, Purgatory XXXI: 94).
Every book holds a story, enlightening or dramatic, edifying or cruel. Those who ignore writing, who have not succeeded in handing down their past from father to son, who only live in the present and can only rely on oral tradition are in fact a people without a history. In those November days the priority was to free the volumes from the clay, to restore to life those pages that told our history which otherwise would have been impos- sible to recollect.
But someone has conceived a provocative book which braves the water: it was written and designed, to be read precisely during a hedonistic dip. It is called Libidine. Guida sin- tetica ad una vera degenerazione fisica e morale by Roberto D’Agostino, published by Mondadori in 1987. “A book,” the blurb informs us, “eternal, washable, palpable, unsinkable, synthetic, aphrodisiac, life-saving, sexually degrading, non-absorbent.” The pages are made of plastic and the frontispiece shows a naked woman whose breasts, when you blow into a valve situated in the navel, swell to enormous size.
Instructions for after reading: “To deflate, press the valve between finger and thumb”. In a very different context, another erasure from memory was the one deliberately carried out by the Inquisitor who condemned the books of heretics to the flames. Worse still, if we are incapable of reconstructing Mayan civilization this is precisely because of the sys- tematic destruction of their manuscripts at the hands of the Franciscans, who came after the Conquistadores and who considered them Satanical. The prime minister of the emperor Qin Shihiang, the renegade Li Si, was publicly cut in half, guilty of having “mur- dered” hundreds of books, (Elias Canetti Auto da fé). Fernando Báez has even written a Universal History of the destruction of books, starting from the fire of the great Library of Alexandria and the one ordered by the Chinese emperor Shi Huang up to the sacking of Baghdad during the recent overthrow of Hussein. Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature of the spontaneous combustion of paper, and also the title chosen by Ray Bradbury for his 1953 science fiction book where, in an Orwellian world, reading is forbidden.
In fact, a special force of firemen is trained to burn books. Alas, the plot of the novel was not so original: twenty years before, on 10 May 1933 to be exact, twenty thousand vol- umes were thrown into the flames in the Opera Platz in Berlin on the initiative of the Hitler Youth. In a purification ceremony nine students, one after the other, shouted out the names of the “degenerate” authors who were about to be consigned to oblivion.
They included Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and Heinrich Mann. For Gœbbels and Rosenberg it was a regenerating fire. One cannot help wondering from whose library those books had been withdrawn. Certainly not from Adolf Hitler’s, a collection of as many as sixteen thousand volumes put together, it seems, without any scheme in mind, but out the sheer compulsiveness of its possessor (the Führer used to brag about read- ing a book a day): Don Quixote and Robinson Crusoe, Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Henry Ford’s The International Jew, Machiavelli and the prophesies of Nostradamus. A self-taught man with a head crammed like a blocked kitchen sink, who only read to confirm his own prejudices (see Timothy Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library). “I burn books,” says José Carvalho, hero of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s detective stories. Because – as the so called illegitimate son of Borges explains – “books are like flames issued from our hands” and further on: “I burn the books I buy with my own money. Not other people’s books.” “You burn books?” “Always, if I can.” “But important books? For example, would you burn Don Quixote?” “That’s one of the first I burnt. If they’re not important, why burn them?” (The Buenos Aires Quintet). Carvalho spares Horacio Vásquez’s Guide to Buenos Aires because it might come in handy, but he takes a subtle pleasure in tearing to bits Hugh Thomas’s Cuba before consigning it to the flames (also in The Buenos Aires Quintet). So, after all, his decimations do not seem to be entirely gratuitous.
“I don’t burn books that serve some purpose,” he states with regard to Raúl Murad’s Handbook of Argentinian Spit-Roasting (also in The Buenos Aires Quintet). On the same principle, as a good gourmet (in El Laberinto Griego), he spares Ada Boni’s Il Talismano della felicità, “the bible of Italian cuisine”, and we have to take our hats off to anyone who has a Puilly Fumé, a Sancerre or a Chablis in the fridge. While Carvalho regrets not being able to destroy a copy of James Matthew Barrie’s Peter Pan, having already done so in a previous state of drunkenness, he condemns to the flames The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano, Adàn Buenos Aires by Leopoldo Marechal, the complete works of Luis Borges, in addition to Ernesto Sábato, Maria Dolores Asís Garrote, Osvaldo Soriano, Macedonio Fernández, Adolfo Bioy Casares… (The Buenos Aires Quintet).
What logical thread is Ileana Florescu following when she entrusts books to the cry- stalline sea of Sardinia and at the same time photographs them, as if to witness their destruction? Destruction or purification? Doesn’t water separate various levels of puri- ty? It must be admitted that Florescu has a special relationship with the liquid world. Her exhibition Grafie consisted in sheer drawing on water. In certain undulant pages of this Human Compendium one can read a few printed lines and thus trace the author of the sunken book. It is therefore important to know the choice that has been made. Is it unconscious or conscious? Are we allowed to ask her which wines she keeps in the fridge? Or rather, which Sardinian mullet roe? I ask this question well knowing how important Sardinia is to her work. I think of her Meteorites, granite rocks half-submerged in the island swamps which, through her special photographic perception, practically lose all connection with space and time, floating in the motionless air. No longer rocks now, but books. A search for an out-of-the-way subject, or the creation of a colour scheme magnified by transparency? There is no question about it, this time writing has given way to painting. But it is equally certain – despite the apparent paradox – that a number of her pictures remind us of Pepe Carvalho: books are like a burst of flame, a “sea flame”.