In Venetian art, Venetian history

Libraries in Venice are silent places reflecting hundreds and hundreds of years of the history of this city and its over one million human voices. Visiting libraries while visiting Venice is possible, with the necessary respect due to fragile objects, to treat with white gloves. And I will be happy to be of help.

But this is not a post listing libraries in Venice, although it’s related to Venice and its written legacy.

I simply decided to write this post because a library, newly born in Venice, is leaving the city right today. This project was designed by Edmund de Waal and is called “Psalm” and this is just the beginning. The newly born library will now head to London, then to Dresden and finally reach the city of Mosul in Iraq.

Psalm, a project by Edmund de Waal

The British born artist Edmund de Waal, author of “The Hare with Amber Eyes” (2011) is known for the ethereal beauty of his porcelain vessels. When I listened to his presentation at the University of Venice a couple of years ago of his book about porcelain, “The White Road, A Journey into Obsession”, the whole audience was simply mesmerised by his words, calm gestures and gentle sense of humor.

Designed in collaboration with Beit Venezia, the Ateneo Veneto of Venice and the Jewish Museum, the project “Psalm” seems to be the direct consequence of that talk. A project about words and exile that could not but start in Venice.

Psalms as poetry of exile

De Waal created an installation to be placed both in the Jewish ghetto as in the Ateneo Veneto of Science, Letters and Arts in Venice. It is in the latter site that I met the Director of the Beit Venezia organisation, Giuseppe Balzano. In between us, in the middle of the main room of the Ateneo, a large white box stood, with two entrances, no roof. We sat outside and talked about it.

Entrance of the Library of Exile by Edmund de Waal, Venice, 2019

Entrance of the Library of Exile by Edmund de Waal, Venice, 2019

Signs of dripping white revealed this box was covered in liquid porcelain. Fragmented, partially erased handwritten phrases attracted our attention. Grey words emerging from the whiteness. This box was an encumbering presence entertaining a dialogue with this room where citizens have gathered to participate to Venetian life for almost over a hundred years. 

Libraries that got destroyed

Balzano told me about de Waal’s family history. His greatgrandfather Viktor belonged to the Jewish family Ephrussi from Odesa, today Ukraine. His valuable art collection and library in 1938 were stolen by Nazis at the time of the Anschluss, when Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany. In a corner of the porcelain library I noticed the words dedicated to his greatgrandfather:

I’m making this for my greatgrandfather Viktor who saw his library stolen

Psalm by Edmund de Waal, Venice, 2019

Psalm by Edmund de Waal, Venice, 2019

This was the beginning for a project meant to commemorate not just the destroyed library of de Waal’s greatgrandfather, but also dedicated to all the libraries that have disappeared in the world. Cities of the Middle East, Africa and Europe, most celebrated for their libraries: Alexandria, Timbutku, Bremen, Niniveh, Babylon. Places of culture that no longer exist because a fire, war or violence destroyed them for good. Some of these names are written outside the porcelain white box.

Detail of Psalm by Edmund de Waal, Venice, 2019

Detail of Psalm by Edmund de Waal, Venice, 2019

A library of exile made of porcelain

In this way, this stranger white parallelepiped lay in connection to the Ateneo. Two doors corresponding to the doors of the institute invited in. And once you got in, you found bookshelves, also all white, filled up with books listed after the place of origin. A clear invitation to pick up a book or the other and read while sitting on a white bench. Moreover, for each book you were invited to write your name in the ex libris label.

Porcelain and books composing the library of exile by Edmund de Waal, Venice, 2019

Porcelain and books composing the library of exile by Edmund de Waal, Venice, 2019

This library’s heart features two thousands books that correspond to the two thousand years of exile of the Jewish people. Actually, the library has now more volumes because of donations. But they are all books written by authors that worked in exile or talked about exile. Or in translation, as a translated language is metaphorically a space of exile, too. Not to mention that the book is a great travel companion, symbolically representing life’s changes and need to move. 

Among these books, I enjoyed reading the stories of Superman by Joe Shuster fighting against Nazis.

Jo Shuster's Superman fighting Nazis

Jo Shuster’s Superman fighting Nazis

Why such a project about libraries in Venice?

This library in porcelain, a place of passage and, as the hut during Sukkoth, a house and refuge, symbolises a special book, too, that is very much connected to Venice: the Talmud.

Inside the white box, in fact, you find four window cases with shelves and objects in porcelain placed exactly the same. They represent a page of the Talmud, the great literary corpus of Jewish culture featuring several texts as a comment to the Jewish bible, that got printed for the first time in the history right in Venice. The Flemish printer Daniel Bomberg from Antwerp got the permission by the Doge to print in Hebrew in 1521. 

Inside the library of exile by Edmund de Waal, Venice, 2019

Inside the library of exile by Edmund de Waal, Venice, 2019

In the window case in “Psalm” by Edmund de Waal the porcelain objects and the shelves perfectly replicate the printed page of the Talmud, both in its central text, the Mishnah, and the comments, the Ghemara. But not just.

A book as symbol of Venice and Venice as a symbol for a book

According to rabbi and philosopher Marc-Alain Ouaknin, Bomberg’s Talmud evokes in its printed page the topography of Venice itself, with its islands and canals. “From topography to typography”, points out Balzano of Beit Venezia. Reading the Talmud is as if you were walking around Venice and when you walk around Venice is as if you are reading (and interpreting) the book.

Daniel Bomberg edition of the Talmud, Venice

Daniel Bomberg edition of the Talmud, Venice

Mosul and the reconstruction of the library

Rosh haShana starts today. Today the library will leave Venice, passing by London and then Dresden to land finally in Mosul in Iraq as the a contribution to the reconstruction of the library destroyed during the war. 

And we cannot forget that Mosul happens to be near the ancient town of Niniveh, where King Ashurbanipal had once collected in his mythical library all the knowledge existing in the world at his time.

Mosul Eye, the blogger that reported what life was like during the ISIS occupation of Mosul, launched a call for the reconstruction of this library in 2017. Here are the photos by Ali Yousif Al Baroodi that show activist Tahany Saleh moving around the remains of the library in Mosul after being bombed.

Activist Tahany Saleh in the library in Mosul destroyed in the war, ph. by Ali Al-Baroodi

Activist Tahany Saleh in the library in Mosul destroyed in the war, ph. by Ali Al-Baroodi

No matter how fragile porcelain or paper can be, the message they bear is strong. When a book is destroyed, you cannot re-write it. But you can reconstruct a library.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

note: for a tour of libraries in Venice, feel free to contact me directly and we will choose together a tailored made itinerary

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