Venice is full of fascinating little shops selling interesting and unique items. A favourite of mine is the traditional printer or ‘stamperia’ that is run by Gianni Basso. Part shop and part museum, father and son use traditional, hand-operated printing machines to produce a huge range of printed cards, personalised stationery and beautiful business cards.
STAMPERIA – Visiting the shop is an absolute joy, there’s never enough time and so much to see and appreciate. Every corner of the shop and the museum next door is filled with machinery, brochures, leaflets and letters. Hundreds of letters from satisfied customers, praising Gianni’s work and his dedication to continuing the traditional printing skills of Venice. Gianni calls himself Mr Gutenberg, with a wry smile on his face. Gutenberg was the German inventor of the original printing press in the mid 15th century. Before the printing press, books, documents, letters, cards all had to be laboriously copied out by hand. When the printing press was invented, using movable text, all of a sudden a machine could be set to produce hundreds, even thousands of books, leaflets or documents. This ability to produce written pamphlets cheaply and easily gave people the opportunity to read and learn about new ideas, new opinions and of course rules and regulations. The printing press gave ordinary people access to information, assuming they could read. The printing press created the need and desire for literacy. The use of the printing press also standardised language over time. The printer was a vital element in deciding what was published. Early printers were, in fact, highly skilled and influential individuals. They performed the role of editor, publisher and printer. They effectively decided what the public would read.
VENICE became a centre for the printing trade. By the late 15th century there were more than 400 printing presses in Venice. Printers arrived from Rome and Austria to practise their trade in a city of exceptional tolerance. The Republic of Venice supported business and trade. A city that always kept the Pope at arm’s length was a perfect home for educated and independent thinkers like Aldus Manutius (Aldo Manuzio), who came from Rome to work in a tolerant, free and easy (relatively) environment. Manutius was a scholar, humanist and founder of the Aldine Press. He published texts in Greek and Latin by Aristotle and Plato. He was also an innovator, developing type face which was to be the forerunner of the ‘italic’ type face. Manutius basically devised the shape and curve of letters that we read every day and regard as ‘standard’ typeface. He also produced; “libelli portatiles in formam enchiridii” these were portable small books, similar to modern paperbacks. Manutius was an innovator, he was ahead of his time, hard-working and thorough. This influential and important printing heritage continues in Venice to this day and Gianni Basso’s shop and museum are a vital part of that unique history.
ARMENIANS – In the 16th century a group of Armenian monks arrived in Venice. They were Christian and were persecuted in their homeland because of their faith. In Venice their studious and scholarly approach to life impressed the Venetians and Sebastiano Mocenigo an important Venetian aristocrat effectively gave an abandoned island in the lagoon to the Armenians. The island, which was a former leper colony became known as San Lazzaro degli Armeni. The Armenians established a monastery and printing workshop on the island. They created a garden and produced their own fruit and vegetables. They extended the run-down church. Then in 1512 the first book to be published in Armenian was printed on San Lazzaro. That book is still in the library of the Armenians to this very day – five hundred years later. As a boy Gianni Basso visited the Armenian island with his grandfather Giuseppe. Giuseppe provided a boat service that linked San Lazzaro with Lido, the neighbouring island. Gianni was able to watch the monks creating and printing books. It was a fascination that has lasted a lifetime. Later he became an apprentice to the monks. When the monks decided to adopt modern printing techniques, it was Gianni who took the old, manual presses and created his own ‘stamperia’ continuing to use the traditional machines of the Armeni.
ACQUA ALTA – During the acqua alta of last November much of Venice was badly hit by flooding. A combination of high wind and high tide caused flood waters in Venice to rise more than a metre above normal levels. The traditional printing machines are very heavy and difficult to move, so many of them were covered in water for several hours. However Gianni and his son embarked on the Herculean task of drying, cleaning and oiling every machine and every moving part, so that by February the shop was up and running again. When I visited in late January the shop was clean and thoroughly ‘dried out’. The machines were oiled and performing perfectly. The perpetual smell of damp had even disappeared. I was humbled and impressed by the task that Gianni and Stefano had undertaken with determination and fortitude. Their steadfast approach to the trials and tribulations of life in Venice reminded me of John Wayne in the classic western True Grit (1969) where a US Marshall is hired by a young girl to bring her father’s murderer to trial. Despite the difficulty of the task, and numerous challenges and set backs, justice finally prevails. The efforts of father and son here in Venice have clearly demonstrated the backbone and single-mindedness required to move forward and overcome whatever problems come their way. So I’d like to suggest that Gianni Basso is a mixture of Aldus Manutius, John Wayne and a typical, tough Venetian for whom there’s always a solution somewhere……
THE PHOENIX – Just like the phoenix rising from the ashes ‘Gianni Basso Stamperia’ emerged from the terrible flooding of November, 2019 and a gargantuan clean-up effort, by father and son, looking better than it did before. The latest threat now to the business is Covid-19 and the collapse of tourism in the City of Venice. In March 2020 everything stopped. Italians were unable to move more than 200 metres from their homes. Shops and businesses were closed, movement and trade ceased. Shutters were down and padlocks firmly in place. The shop tucked away in a narrow street just a few moments from Fondamente Nove faced yet another challenge. Most of Gianni’s customers are tourists visiting from overseas, often British or American. So here’s my plea to you – if you need some visiting cards, business cards or you want to share in the heritage of this exceptional printer, then please place an order with him. The photo below shows the business cards that I and my family members commissioned from Gianni in January this year, you can choose your colour, typeface, layout and picture. The result is something unique to you. The whole process is a pleasure and a joy to experience. Even if you are not in Venice it is a way of supporting the unique history of this incredible city, which since the 16th century has played a key role in the development of the printing industry.
- Place an order – if you can. You can e-mail Gianni at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- Let’s face it Mr John Wayne is waiting to hear from you. Master ‘Stampatore’ a Venezia – A Master Printer.
- I’ll help put your order together if necessary. I can suggest colour, text and logo as required. If you need help from me: email@example.com
- In this way we are both helping the artisans of Venice to keep going.
- The city of the Printers can’t be allowed to dwindle, not now that we need dedicated, traditional, sustainable skills more than ever.
- In the words of Carlo Moin whose Facebook Page: ‘Venetians’ is fantastic: …’Tutto ha inizio nell’isola degli Armeni dove Gianni ha imparato l’arte di stampare. Il nonno Giuseppe collegava con la barca il Lido con l’isola degli Armeni. E Gianni che accompagnava il nonno rimane affascinato dai monaci che stampavano a mano libri e altro materiale. Il giovane inizia a frequentare l’isola ma come apprendista stampatore a mano. Poco prima dei 30 anni apre bottega e quando il laboratorio dei monaci passa al digitale, si porta a casa tutti quei macchinari che hanno fatto la storia della stampa. Nel suo laboratorio il ritmo è lento. Un ritmo ora raccolto dal figlio Stefano…..”
- A lovely article about Gianni Basso – A Modern Day Gutenberg from February, 2020. https://www.frizzifrizzi.it/2020/02/13/gianni-basso-maestro-stampatore/
- It’s so important in these turbulent times that we respect and honour our history and our heritage. We should never stop appreciating hard work and talent, dedication and humility.
- Lido di Venezia: July 2020
- Thank you Mr Gutenberg – traditional printing is alive and well in Venice!