Kasa Dei Libri, Milan. Inside Andrea Kerbaker’s headquarters

A house with thirty-thousand books. A Montale from the Florence flood, a first edition of Les Misérables«one bookseller thought it was counterfeit». The quirks of a collector: Andrea Kerbaker

Kasa Dei Libri – a book lover’s paradise in Milan

Andrea Kerbaker’s Kasa Dei Libri in Milan is a book lover’s paradise. Thirty-thousand volumes sprawled out everywhere. On shelves going up to the ceiling, stacked on the floor, crammed into every nook and cranny, in the kitchen, and in the bathroom. Books from every period, language, workmanship and format, divided according to the logic of the owner. Antiques from before the twentieth century with dedications. Foreign, poetry, art books as well as books on cinema. All browsable, «to overcome the reverential awe one can feel towards collections», explains the homeowner.

It is impossible to stop the eye from darting from posters to photomontages, illustrations by Guido Scarabottolo, and works by Francesco Musante, Tullio Pericoli, Mirò’s plates, paper sculptures, ceramics and movie posters. There is also a section dedicated to children’s workshops, where they have created a miniature book city. «I’ve been going to book stalls since I was nine. I would go to the Senigallia market with my brother and my cousin, who was six years older than me, and skilled at bartering. We’d buy comic books for fifty or one-hundred lira and sell them at five-hundred. That, in fact, is how I made my money», Kerbaker smiles.

«I was a slip of a thing wandering around the markets. I became friends with the booksellers, and did not ask my father for pocket money. Some of the stalls are still there today – piazza Cairoli, piazza Mercanti, – I go check them out and always try to buy something. They are all friends. They’ll tell me: Have you seen this? and I’ll buy it. As for some books, I only buy them because I am charmed by the bookseller. If I had to estimate how much I spend per year, it wouldn’t be a lot – around five thousand euros. This space has become too small and, therefore, we are going to expand. I bought a warehouse on Lake Maggiore and soon I will start sending incoming collections there».

Lampoon review: books collections at Kasa Dei Libri

«Monetary and commercial factors don’t come into play for a collector», says Kerbaker. «A collector looks for the element that makes a work collectible. I have never been a venal person. I understand that a publisher needs to sell. He is is not in an act of cultural proselytism, but a trade. But, for me, the distinction is qualitative. A collection can also include bad books: the value does not lie in the text, but in the object itself. If there are one-hundred-thousand copies, I am not interested. The same also applies to renown. I do not pursue it. It is incidental. I am of the school of Enrico Cuccia, founder and president of Mediobanca. He, in fact, steered the entire Italian economy with the saying one does not count votes, one weights them».

«It is rare for me not to know the reason why a book is here. As a matter of fact, the beauty of buying or receiving a substantial collection is getting to study the person who owned it. My first collection belonged to Cesare Musatt, a Jewish psychologist and the founder of psychoanalysis in Italy. I bought his library in a moment of madness. I showed up at the doorstep of my now wife with two-thousand books in twenty-seven boxes». It takes intuition and knowledge – and luck.

A first edition of Les Misérables, a Montale from the Florence flood

In a bookstore in Rome, Kerbaker came across a first edition in volumes of Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. He saw the value in a volume the bookseller himself had failed to recognize, deceived by where it was printed: Brussels. When Hugo sent Les Misérables to be printed in 1862, after seventeen years of work, he was on the island of Guernsey, in a self-imposed exile due to disagreements with Napoleon III’s regime.

It was there that in 1861 he signed the contract that bound him to a newly founded Belgian publisher, Lacroix. Belgium was sheltered from the censorship of Napoleon III. «The Roman bookseller – who is also a friend of mine – did not know this story and believed what he had was a counterfeit edition. I bought it for a few lira anyway because I was interested. Once I got home I analyzed it: it was the authentic first edition. It is worth five-thousand euros».

There are thousands of anecdotes surrounding Montale. These include the Macedonian edition preceding the 1975 Nobel prize dedicated in Italian to his «dear Macedonian readers», as well as the one that escaped the Florence flood of 1966. The water had flooded the poet’s library, damaging many volumes, but this one was saved. Traces of mud can still be found inside it. Another book, recommended to him by his friend and poet Piero Bigongiari, who Montale sent back with a comment in pencil on the frontispiece. It wasn’t worth reading.

The importance of a dedication

Buzzati’s license, Quasimodo’s passion for women, writers recommending each other’s books, the idiosyncrasies of people who were readers before they became authors. «It’s a way to transcend the book industry. A book with several thousand copies is not interesting in terms of collecting. I have many first editions. But, that doesn’t mean much anymore. These days, even an unknown author has a first print run of at least a thousand copies. There is also a wider circulation. Compared to the past, volumes are more easily found nowadays».

A dedication does not make a volume more rare, but it does make it unique. «Except in the case of Tommaso Marinettiwho dedicated all his copies, as my publisher friend Scheiwiller told mea dedication is almost always a message to an interlocutor who is part of the author’s circle. If you dig, you will find the reason for the dedication. You may discover they made a trip to South America, or something about their personal life. But that of the recipient as well, who oftentimes is also someone of note».

There is a tendency to group writers together by where they’re from as well as where they’re based. «Sometimes in a somewhat lobbying manner, sometimes by chance. If you were to acquire around forty sizable collections, you might – for example – discover the reason why Giorgio Soavi’s who worked for Olivetti collection included some authors and was missing others. We, therefore, work by exclusion. Why isn’t there even a single book by Ungaretti? Maybe they didn’t run in the same circles? Or had they quarreled? Perhaps he didn’t care for him. When collections are studied, a whole world comes to light».

Kapannone dei Libri

Andrea Kerbaker – Bagutta awards secretary

Kerbaker is Secretary of the Bagutta awards. He is also part of the Amici della domenica (Sunday Friends) of the Strega prize. He is on the jury of the Malaparte awards, as well. Since last year, he serves as director at Tempo di Libri in Milan. Marco Balzano won the Bagutta this year with Resto Qui. «I read and reviewed it, Marco is a friend. It is not his best book, my favorite is still his first, Il Figlio del Figlio. No matter what book he is writing, Balzano maintains his high standard of writing. He is in his forties and makes a living from literature. He’s a high school teacher.

Collecting helps to make people understand that success is temporary, ephemeral. «Pavese committed suicide two months after winning the Strega. The variable of contemporary literature is that we should be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. There is so much chaff these days. I’m a bit conservative, I have always been. The market is not the devil, innovation is fine. But not everything that is new is good just because it is new».

Italians don’t read anymore

Italians don’t read anymore. But it’s not due to paper being overthrown by digital, as some proclaimed some years ago. «The e-book has not caught on. Its popularity, in fact, has been stagnant at five percent for years. This number will not increase. Even in America it has remained stable at twenty percent. We should be attracting non-readers, not those who already read, or avid readers, or it will remain a self-referential discourse. The blurb is usually written by an author unknown to non-readers. Therefore, the message does not reach them».

Aldo Manuzio in the sixteenth century had the foresight to make books portable and light, with a non-Gothic and more readable font. Why is it that cursive, invented in Manunzio’s Venetian editions, is called italics all around the world, except for in Italy? «Because we are not good at selling ourselves. Aside from the discovery, which is German, the whole history of printing is Italian».

Temporary exhibitions at Kasa dei Libri

Kasa Dei Libri’s strongpoint is that Kerbaker owns most of the material exhibited in the temporary exhibitions. The curator’s work consists in finding an interpretation, an unexplored thread, a story. It is, in fact, a maieutic effort – to bring out what is already within. «I curate the exhibits myself. I follow the red threads. They are like the specializations of a scholar who, by dint of going over a time, becomes an expert. The bonds, the connections arise spontaneously. Some interests are latent, but then one day they come out. Why don’t we exhibit this? Sometimes you succeed, sometimes you don’t. One cannot show and tell everything».

In October Kasa Dei Libri hosted an exhibition on book covers, contemporary volumes as well as books from last year, chosen by twenty tapini, self-proclaimed expert judges. It gives a bird’s eye view of the editorial graphics industry in Italy: graphics voting on graphics. «The exhibition has tried to show what they mean. Sometimes they are a tad enigmatic, sometimes very beautiful, often not very commercial. In the midst of those – with three recommendations out of sixty, so not many – there is Scurati’s M. Many copies were sold. This shows that graphic design and commercial success can coexist».

Corporate magazines and artist books

The cover of M is very apt. «I don’t know if Scurati himself came up with it. But if he did, it was a clever move on his part, because aside from a strong title, the design has a strong impact, it attracts attention. For the future, I am planning a look at corporate magazines: Olivetti, Eni, Pirelli. That’s my background – corporate communication and I have always found it a fascinating medium. If we want Italians to read more, we should, therefore, take a leaf out of the corporate communications book».

The upper floor features a section with artist books including Matisse covers. One of the books comes from early twentieth-century Paris, when Matisse would hang out with Apollinaire and the poet André Rouveyre. Then, after the death of Apollinaire in 1918, Matisse and Rouveyre decided to make a book dedicated to him – Apollinaire, Raison d’Etre, 1952 – with Rouveyre’s texts and eight graphics by the artist: an aquatint and seven black lithographs on a cream background. A lithograph with three faces symbolizes the three friends. There are only two-hundred-and-fifty of them in the world. «That was an expensive book. I paid two-thousand-eight-hundred euros for it. It was the most expensive that year».

The Kapannone of the Angera Books 

The fifth of September 2020 saw the inauguration of The Kapannone dei Libri in Angera. The space’s location is a large industrial area created from an old Borghi factory on the outskirts of Angera, a town in the province of Varese. It expands itself over four-hundred square metres on two floors, with a height of almost seven metres. The space furnitures are in line with this location and intention. Iron, cement as well as metal shelves galore respect the industrial vocation of the building, according to the project by architects Matteo Ferrario and Salvatore Virgillito, owners of the Caramob studio, who have always collaborated with Kasa Dei Libri and its exhibitions.

In keeping with the indications and safety limits prescribed by the fire brigade, a small metal labyrinth, with portals and circles, in which one can wander around without any preestablished order and lose oneself at will in the sea of volumes. Among the collections destined to be housed in the new space are art books, in all possible and imaginable nuances. Visual arts, painting, sculpture, modern and contemporary, photography, design, architecture, books from companies as well as industries, etc.

Volumes dedicated to geniuses of the twentieth century

Geniuses of the twentieth century are the protagonists of specific volumes at Kasa Dei Libri, according to Kerbaker’s taste: Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dalí and Giorgio de Chirico. Each with titles of absolute rarity. Further, banking editions also characterize one section. They are introduced by a historical catalogue, La Banca e il Libro, with a preface by Umberto Eco. Two others present the books of Franco Maria Ricci and those of the first Skira, from the 1930s to 1970.

There are also collections of magazines from the second half of the twentieth century – often complete – some of which are now unobtainable. La Critica, the magazine of Benedetto Croce, the five series of Nuovi Argomenti, founded by Alberto Moravia and directed over time also by Pier Paolo Pasolini and Leonardo Sciascia, Paragone, a magazine of art and literature founded by Roberto Longhi and Anna Banti, Belfagor. In addition, a quantity of books dealing with bibliographies, printing histories, bookshops, libraries, design and editorial graphics, catalogues of publishers and antiquarian booksellers, various texts signed by bibliophiles and other categories affected by the same syndrome. 

Kasa Dei Libri

Largo Aldo de Benedetti 4, Milan
Kasa Dei Libri is a cultural space in Milan housing the collection of over thirty-thousand volumes owned by Andrea Kerbaker. Kasa Dei Libri also organizes temporary exhibitions, presentations and series of meetings related to the world of books and literature. 

Marta Mazzacano

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
for more info, please email us at [email protected]