“What is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?”
— Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


The White Rabbit and Alice at Prof. Agostino Dessi’s.


I’ve just got back from a 12 day trip to Florence, where I had the unique opportunity of working with bookbinder, restorer and artist Enrico Giannini, thanks to Cy DeCosse. Cy and Enrico met back in the 1950s when Cy was studying in Florence on a Fulbright scholarship, and the two have remained friends since.


Enrico’s the fifth generation of a family that has bound books for all the Popes, most Heads of State and royalty since his great-great-grandfather established the business opposite the Pitti Palace in the mid 1800s. His daughter Maria is the sixth generation running the shop, leaving Enrico to now concentrate on teaching and passing on his considerable wealth of knowledge to others.


The past year of working at MCBA meant I had a good grounding in the basics of bookbinding, so this trip was all about picking up tips, tricks and techniques from a master craftsman. During the two weeks we casebound a couple of books, sewing the signatures onto ribbons and finishing the covers with book cloth and marbled endpapers. We worked at marbling paper and paring leather, discussed the differences between various leathers and tanning, and covered embossing and gold tooling with both leaf and foil. We made slipcases and portfolio boxes, and bound two photo albums for a client. And, of course, there were plenty of examples of restoration that he has undertaken and those that he’s preparing to work on.


In the gaps, we ate well.


What I found most encouraging was that he isn’t necessarily committed to doing things the traditional way. If there’s a modern material or technique available that makes life easier, then he uses it. He also explained the reasons and the science behind using a particular adhesive or paper or material and, like platinum printing, most if it has to do with humidity and moisture content.


As an aside, Enrico’s studio is small, really small. He also has a wicked sense of humor. By his own admission he’s an XXL artist in an XXS studio, and when a street vendor came around peddling cheap items, which happened regularly, he countered by trying to sell her his books and boxes, much to her frustration and our amusement.


I also got to spend some amazing time with a couple of Cy’s other friends and their families. A day out in the country at painter Mario Fallani‘s villa, in the Tuscan countryside mid-way between Florence and Siena, and a memorable last evening at the home of mask maker Prof. Agostino Dessi.


Grazie mille, Enrico e Cy!


Paring leather




Burnishing the leather on a half-bound book




Hand illustrated upper case letters from a book published by the Giannini family in the 1800s


Marbling paper




Enrico and his studio


A pen and ink drawing dated from the 1500s, found after separating glued papers during a restoration project


Lunch in the Tuscan countryside


Bistecca alla Fiorentina, cooked on an open fire in the kitchen of Prof. Agostino Dessi