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Italy’s Book Doctor

In the city of Bologna, home to the world's oldest university, Pietro Livi developed an unusual machine shop—part artisanal and part high-tech—built to restore damaged ancient texts to their former glory. And then came Venice’s historic floods of 2019.

Issues: Summer 2021

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By Luisa Grosso

It all started in 1994. The flooding of the Po river and its tributaries had just swept away entire villages in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, leaving behind only death and debris. The whole of Italy was shocked. Of all the damage broadcast on television, one caused a particular sensation: In the village Santo Stefano Belbo, the historical archive of Cesare Pavese, one of the most famous and beloved Italian writers, was buried in mud.

The debacle particularly impressed a man named Pietro Livi, president of Frati & Livi in Bologna, a company that had been restoring and conserving ancient texts for nearly 20 years. At that time, however, no one in Italy was equipped for this kind of rescue. In the past, flooded and muddy documents were entrusted to companies that used basic restoration methods that proved both invasive and ineffective: The books were simply placed in ovens or air-dried in large rooms, which often left the texts unusable and made mold only proliferate.

To learn the art of restoring texts that have been damaged by floods, misuse, old age, or any of the other myriad insults that can afflict ancient books, Pietro Livi studied with Benedictine friars.

So Livi decided to find out if anyone in Europe had found a more effective way to save these invaluable records of human achievement. Finally, in Austria, Livi found a freeze dryer that held some promise, but it was too big and costly for a small artisanal company like his. Then, in 2000, the Po river overflowed again. In the city of Turin, entire archives belonging to distinguished institutes and libraries ended up underwater.

At a loss for what to do, Italy’s Archival Superintendency of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage summoned Livi. By this time, Livi had established a solid reputation as a master restorer, having studied the art of book restoration with Benedictine friars. But he realized that for a project of this scope, his expertise was no longer enough; he needed a kind of Renaissance workshop, where he could collaborate with professionals from a variety of disciplines. Livi believed that the time had come where the world of artisan knowledge and the world of technology, too often considered as opposites, had to talk to each other—for the benefit of one another.

During Covid, which decimated Italy’s economy, local and national leaders still decided to spare no expense when it came to saving written records of their cultural heritage. At the  height of the pandemic, when tourism was at an all-time low, Italy dedicated 450,000 euros (roughly $530,000) to restoring the thousands of books damaged in Venice’s 2019 flood.

In 2001, Livi built a team that included an archivist, a mechanical engineer, a designer, a microbiologist, a chemist, a physicist and a software expert. This is how his own design for a freeze-dryer, which could restore large quantities of books at an acceptable cost, took shape. After getting a bank loan for 150,000 euros, Livi built a large device, looking somewhat like a yellow submarine, which he called “Book’s Wind 1.” Unfortunately, while his new machine dried a volume quite well without damaging its papers (and thus, gained certification by the Italian Central Institute of Pathology of the Book), it couldn’t rid a book of damaging microorganisms.

Enter the famous Italian entomologist, Professor Elisabetta Chiappini, an expert on what insects do to books and works of art; and a microbiologist named Matteo Montanari, who specialized in microbial effects on works of cultural heritage. Chiappini asked Livi to create a book with a hollow space inside that could contain live insects; the microbiologist then brought in cultures of fungi and bacteria typically found in paper. From these experiments, a second machine was born: “Book’s Wind 2,” which marked a significant turning point in the world of book sanitization in Italy.

When you watch Livi and his colleagues talk (in the mini-documentary below) about the various texts damaged in Venice’s flood, it’s clear how much this heritage matters to them; in some of these scenes, it’s almost as though a mother were bemoaning the death of her child.

Then, on November 12, 2019, the city of Venice, one of the world’s most mythical and most admired locales, suffered its worst flood in 53 years. The swollen lagoon soaked roughly 25,000 valuable texts, including the last surviving original of one of Vivaldi’s musical scores. Frati & Livi was quickly called to the scene. Its work to save the written heritage of the great “city of canals” is captured in my accompanying mini-documentary, which is featured below.

Since then, Livi’s Renaissance workshop has never stopped working. Today, the Frati & Livi team operates an entire battery of machinery capable of tackling almost any pathology that afflicts a book, all custom-designed in their shop. Those pathologies include not only mold and bacteria, but also viruses such as Covid. Replicates of some of these machines have now been purchased by the Vatican Secret Archives, as well as by the national archives of many other countries.

“You have to believe in your dreams,” says Livi. “We Italians have a culture of the past because we live in a land that has been crossed by all civilizations. Everything here has its roots in antiquity. In Italy we have preserved more documents than monuments, to keep faith with the Enlightenment idea that knowledge must belong to everyone.”

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