The Gutenberg of Venice
New Indian Express, India January 8, 2012 Sunday
India, Jan. 8 -- Gianni Basso is a man after my own heart. In an age where technology threatens the future of the book as a physical object, he surrounds himself with antiquated printing presses and resolutely eschews any form of communication that favours speed over style. "See," he says, pointing to a black rotary phone from the 50s, (the newest machine in his studio), "You cannot press one or two on these phones even though nowadays you are always being asked to press a button." Gianni Basso has no e-mail ID or website, no machine that accepts credit cards. He jokes that the carrier pigeon is his fax machine. If you want to visit him you must telephone, write, or visit in person.
I found him by chance on a wintry December day, at the end of the Calle del Fumo in Venice. I had been to the St Michele cemetery nearby to visit the graves of old heroes - Brodsky, Stravinsky, Diaghilev, and on the way back, stumbled upon a beguiling shop window filled with visiting cards and ex libris - some bearing names of the people I'd visited in the cemetery. Entering Basso's printshop was a bit like stepping back in time-the wonderful smell of varnish, lead and wood pervading the air, and the reassuring presence of those hulking, beautiful machines - direct descendants of a time when Venice was the printing capital of the world.
Basso is known to friends as the Gutenberg of Venice. He was part of the last generation to be trained in the art of letterpress printing by the Armenian Mekhitarists on the island of San Lazzaro - an art that is no longer taught. Thirty years ago Basso started his own printshop determined to compete in the 20th century with 18th century machinery, because he believed there was a niche market for quality and handcrafted products. It has been a tenuous journey, but he has established a diverse and international clientele. The list includes musical composers, ballet dancers, fashion designers, writers and actors. "It's not elegant to say," he replies coyly, when I ask who his most famous client is, but he finally divulges that Angelina Jolie is a customer, except her card isn't in the window as it has her telephone number on it.
There are all kinds of treasures in Basso's shop. A cursory glance of the cards on display reveals that Joseph Brodsky favoured a cat poring over a book for his ex libris, while Danielle Steel preferred a seashell. Basso shows me the original cliches of Collodio's Pinocchio from 1888. (I didn't know that cliche and stereotype as used in language, derive their meaning from these wood-zinc incisions that are used repetitively as printing plates). The most gratifying thing about his work, Basso tells me, is that his customers always return. "What worries me is that they come back to check if I'm still alive!"
Will he ever be tempted to get a computer? I ask. In response, Basso walks up to his desk and opens the top drawer with flourish. "This is my memory, these are my floppy disks," he says, indicating the rows of cliches and woodcuts. I didn't have the heart to tell him that floppy disks became defunct a long time ago.
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