Gallery 19‘s February news post is usually St Valentine’s Day themed and reserved for those [things] we love. It is therefore serendipitous that this February is the first of a series of posts scheduled this year focusing on Venetian craftsmanship [subtitled VENETIAN ARTISANS IN PERIL] and showcasing the superb work of some lagoon artisans we have had the privilege to know over the years.
Paolo Olbi is a name synonymous with the best of Italian craftsmanship. I have seen his name above elegant shop fronts in San Marco and picturesque workshops in Castello and Cannereggio while, closer to home, his oval gold address label is stuck on the inside cover of half-a-dozen beautiful leather notebooks I have collected over the years. I was reminded of Paolo Olbi on Christmas morning while flicking through Derek Jarman’s just-unwrapped Sketchbooks and recognizing the small gold oval name and address in facsimile. Derek Jarman bought his sketchbooks from a shop in Florence that sold Paolo Olbi’s hand-bound books. Jarman loved their scale, materials and craftsmanship and would take away with him as many 12” x 12” deckled-edged albums as he could carry.
“…he reached for a large book; the size of a family photograph album, it was painted matt black with the title inscribed in gold. ‘Here’s the film’ he stated, simply.
And so it was. Way beyond a scrapbook, it was a movable brainbox: littered with pasted and drawn images, snatches of dialogue, scored revisions, the typed pages of his latest screenplay draft, filigreed with the henna-like pattern of his brown or black hieroglyphic handwriting. Part talisman, part private confessional, wholly unmediated raw dreamscape, reliable invisible friend and booster jet” [TILDA SWINTON]
Dereck Jarman’s muse, Tilda Swinton, likened the sketchbooks to “the seedbag, the source, the germinator of the garden…handmade and heart-started”. I love the idea that all Jarman’s projects began with a blank book; a blank book hand-bound in Venice by a master craftsman that Jarman then painted black and gold, his spidery handwriting crawling everywhere, the traditional Venetian paper underneath showing through like a censored texture. We were determined to find Paolo Olbi in one of his shops or studios while we were in Venice this winter and scribbled a few of his addresses down in our tattered and battered Blue Guide of Venice.
As it happened, we found Olbi - by accident – on our first day in Venice: coming out of the Church of Sant’ Pantalon and, after two wrong turns, crossing a bridge that deposited us outside the padlocked gate of Ca’Foscari and the open Legatoria di Paolo Olbi. The maestro was folding sheets of handmade paper into signatures on a large, well-lit workbench. The smell of old leather enveloped us as we went in. We struck up a conversation with Maestro Olbi as we selected ou purchases, commenting on our good fortune in stumbling on this shop when it was none of the addresses we had for him. Had he opened another, we asked? O no, was the mournful reply. This was all there left was of Paolo Olbi in Venice anymore.
Paolo Olbi began his life as a bookbinder in 1962 and his clients included some of the oldest libraries in Venice. The books are bound by hand using vegetable-tanned calf’s leather from Tuscany and the finest marbled papers from Venice, the classical Italian motifs appearing with the help of a 1900s typographical press and a hot stamp machine used to emboss leather. From out under the workbench came the photograph album and visitors book. As Paolo Olbi flicked through the album - photographs of shops he no longer owned, classes he no longer taught, commissions he was no longer asked to undetake - he spoke sadly about Venice's decline, the death of the great artisans and extinction of their crafts, the average consumers lack of knowledge/preference for the cheaper imitation, the absence of American dollars and the Asian invasion. Olbi paused on a page with a photograph of himself and the actor Johnny Depp, who always drops in when he is in the city, and who once commissioned a beautiful book from Olbi made of leather and the precious metals of an antique German bible. Venice is full of expensive stationary shops but the fact remains that Paolo Olbi is one of the only bookbinders left in a city that was once the printng and publishing capital of Europe.
So next time you are in Venice seek out the Legatoria di Paolo Olbi in Dorsoduro 3253a [at the foot of Ponte Foscari]. You won't be disappointed.