Based in a nondescript industrial area in the outskirts of Bologna, Frati and Livi is the go-to place in Italy if you need to save books, manuscripts or any paper documents threatened by the elements.
When Venice was overwhelmed with the second-highest floods in modern history in November 2019, the damage to the city’s artistic heritage was incalculable.
But one man sprang into action immediately, confident that he could rescue books, manuscripts, sheet music and any other paper that had fallen prey to slimy lagoon water.
“Not a single sheet of the Venice stuff was lost,” Piero Livi, chairman of specialized firm Frati and Livi, tells dpa, referring to the material that was entrusted to him.
“Everything can be saved,” he declares.
Livi’s team got to Venice in less than 24 hours, because time is of the essence when dealing with drenched paper. “When a book gets wet, it goes mouldy within 48 hours” he says.
The material was packed and taken to company headquarters in “record” time. “The flooding happened on Tuesday night, and by Saturday morning, everything was here,” Livi recalls.
He rescued material from the Benedetto Marcello Conservatory, the Fondazione Querini Stampalia museum, the Fondazione Levi on music studies, and the private collection of publisher Cesare De Michelis.
In total, around 13,000 books were taken care of.
Traditional bookbinding was Frati and Livi’s original core business, but the company now makes most of its money from book recovery operations and the manufacturing of long-term storage folders.
It counts the Uffizi Galleries in Florence, the Louvre in Paris and the Vatican among its top clients. Over a decade, it has doubled its turnover to around 1 million euros (1.15 million dollars).
The Venice work was completed within six months: Livi delivered the last batch of recovered books on May 29, 2020 – and it could have been done earlier had the coronavirus pandemic not got in the way.
Frati and Livi was forced to shut from mid-March until May 4. At the time of closing, “three-quarters of the work had been done,” Livi says.
Books were first stored in containers at a temperature of minus 20 degrees, to stop them from rotting. The next step was extracting moisture using freeze-drying technology.
The process took place in a large, yellow cylinder with four portholes that looks a bit like a submarine.
The machine is Livi’s pride and joy.
“It can hold a 20-metre line of books. Its [drying] cycle lasts 4-5 days, depending on how much water they soaked up. […] In a year, we can dry up to 4 kilometres’ worth of stuff,” he says.
After that, the books were pressed, dusted, disinfected and reconditioned. Livi says that he could not return them to their original condition, but he did ensure they could still be of use.
“You’ll be able to leaf through the book, loan it out, but a scar of what has happened to it will always remain. Anyone who says otherwise is telling porky pies,” Livi quips.
Established in 1975 and based in the industrial outskirts of Bologna, some 150 kilometres south-west of Venice, Frati and Livi has become Italy’s go-to-place for book recovery after natural disasters.
Its next big job after the Venice commissions was rescuing the flood-damaged archives of a Milan university. Livi said 350 metres’ worth of books needed to be dried out.
Livi was trained by Benedictine monks, a religious order with a secular tradition in bookbinding. Fresh out of school, his uncle, a Benedictine prior, got him a place as an apprentice in a monastery.
“I did three years of convent life, going home only on the weekend. I had to respect the monastic rule and everything. It’s not like I could go out,” he recalls.
“But I had a great time, even though it was hard, because you know, I was in my 20s, I had friends, a girlfriend,” he says, adding that the girlfriend later became his wife.
Livi says his work requires “seriousness, passion and patience,” and his eyes light up when he recalls how a few years ago, he worked on what turned out to be the world’s oldest complete Torah scroll.
The sheepskin scroll, dating from the 12th or 13th century, is held at the University of Bologna. It had been mistakenly dated to the 17th century by a university librarian in 1889.
But curiously, Livi has no time for books outside of work.
“I almost never read, I swear. Perhaps it’s because I am dyslexic, I don’t know. I almost never read, yet I restore books. The only stuff I read is here,” he says.