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Bologna Reviews: John Critchley

Published on 19 Oct. 2015

By John Critchley

It would be an understatement to say that I was surprised when asked, in the middle of an ABA Council meeting, if Sandy (my wife) and I would like to attend the 39th ILAB Congress and 23rd ILAB International Book Fair in Bologna – it was an unprecedented, exciting and very generous invitation which we had no hesitation in accepting.

Neither of us had visited Bologna before, and we found it to be a most beautiful city - a normal working city rather than one devoted to tourism, on an industrial base but with a wonderful, large mediaeval centre.  And there are, as you will read later, wonderful libraries and museums: and the food and wine are excellent.  So it was a perfect place to hold Congress.


You can find the (long) agenda and full programme on the ILAB website, there have been press releases and a report of proceedings will appear in the ILAB Newsletter, so I will confine myself to writing about a few items which I found particularly interesting.  

A great deal of preparatory work had been done by the Committee during the preceding months, and they had already been meeting day and night for two days when we arrived - I had been most kindly invited to sit in on the presidents’ meetings, the EGM and the General Meeting.  The Presidents had clearly read their papers, there was no argument about procedural matters and everyone got their heads down to consider the matters in hand, give their opinions, and vote.  Most impressive!

Despite a (Sunday) evening reception for all the Congress participants in the smartest hotel in town, a dinner and then a dalliance for drinks in the main square, the Committee Members and Presidents were hard at it again at 9am on Monday morning.  The General Meeting in the afternoon was just as businesslike as the Presidents’ meetings.  Even though the same agenda was gone over again, reports were received, learned contributions were made from the floor and votes were taken or noted.  Two contributory factors to the good nature and calm may perhaps have been the lunch beforehand and the venue for the meeting – the magnificent Sallo Della Stabat Mater where Rossini’s opera had its Italian premiere. 


The Stabat Mater Room is part of the original 14th century university building.  Before that, for 300 years, students had engaged tutors to teach them in their private apartments.  But then the Pope became concerned about what was being taught and decreed that all tuition must move under one, supervised, roof.  The jewel in the building, the anatomy and dissecting room in the medical school, suffered a direct hit from an allied bomb during WWII.  Luckily, as our guide explained, it was only high explosive, not incendiary(!) and so a loving reconstruction has been possible.  And there was a huge collection of Bologna Incunabula, many purchased in a major acquisition programme just over 100 years ago from great names like Rosenthal and Olschki.  All in all, a wonderful setting for the ILAB to meet.

And I can’t resist mentioning a few highlights of the wonderful programme laid on for us by Umberto Pregliasco, the President of the Italian Association, ALAI, and his committee, especially Fabrizio Govi and Lucia Panini.

Firstly, we were entertained most generously by private individuals: dinner midst Umberto Panini’s (Lucia’s uncle) large collection of Maseratis near Modena; lunch on the lawns of Principe and Principessa Hercolani’s villa overlooking Bologna; and dinner in the palazzo of Mrs Henriques, during which several murders were enacted.  We guests were invited to detect the murderer and to find the missing manuscript which was her motive!  
A few other impressions from a week of unforgettable impressions: the modest and gentle Professore Luigi Ferdinando Tagliavini playing harpsichords from his collection of ancient musical instruments, which he has donated to Bologna. 


Stepping into the astounding 17th century baroque Teatro Farnese in Parma: it’s the size of the Albert Hall, was built for a Hapsburg wedding, and could be flooded to re-enact sea battles.  It was of course severely damaged by an allied bomb (“Luckily she didn’t blow” said our beautiful guide) and restored: Sandy and I hadn’t actually heard of it before.  

The librarian in Barilla’s (the large food manufacturer) Biblioteca Gastronomica telling us not to worry if we found flour in some of the beautiful old books – the chefs from their cookery school often wandered in to consult them.

Listening to the emotional and touching acceptance speech of Jan Storm van Leeuwen, one of the two first prize winners in the ILAB Breslauer Prize for Bibliography.  He had devoted decades of his scholarly life to his research into his three volume study about “Dutch Decorated Bookbinding in the Eighteenth Century” and he had been beset by troubles.  But when the e-mail appeared from the ILAB….  He likened the prize to the highest award a scholar might expect after years of work which is often done in private and without any official or financial help.

And the cheerleaders at the football match, headed by Hermoine Harrington and Millie Fleck and including the entire female part of the Japanese delegation, urging on the Rest of the world team.  

I would like to express my thanks, and I am sure those of everyone who attended the Congress and Fair, to Umberto Pregliasco and his team.  They took on the torch from Gonzalo Fernadez Pontes and the Spanish Association who did so much to re-establish Congress in Madrid in 2008, and they built on their success.  I would like to congratulate them on a hugely successful week, and the great service which their hard work and meticulous planning has rendered to the ILAB.  And Italy won the football very deservedly!

We are most grateful to have been sent as delegates – we saw the ILAB at work, we worked hard ourselves, we made friends with, or renewed friendships with, a large number of booksellers and their partners from around the world, and we enjoyed ourselves immensely!


John Critchley is Secretary of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association. A more extensive report will be published in the next ABA Newsletter.

>>> Picture Galleries and Bologna Diary

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