700 steps of unusual enchantment between Piazza Gae Aulenti and Kasa dei Libri
Picture yourself in a three-storey house, surrounded by 30 thousand books including ancient texts, artist’s editions, first editions, and special editions, plus a myriad of cultural events and workshops for kids and adults alike. Seriously. It is almost a secret garden in the Portanuova District, but starting today it will no longer be such a secret. It is a space open to all and free of charge. A place where you feel you are part of a family and where you can absorb art on a collective and personal level. A setting where books are the common denominator of the shelves, the lamps, and the floors. It is nothing but Professor Andrea Kerbaker’s collection and studio. As a graduate of the Faculty of Literature in Milan and a writer “at birth”, he has worked for 20 years in the business communication sector, covering cultural event organization roles. He teaches Cultural Institutions and Policies at the Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore of Milan, is a freelance writer for Corriere della Sera newspaper and the Sunday supplement to Il Sole 24 ORE, and is an officer for the Bagutta Award, the most ancient literary prize in Italy. He has collected books since the age of 17.
We met him among the books and had a chat.
PN > Good morning, Professor Kerbaker. How lovely it is to get lost among the books. What does “being surrounded by books” mean to you?
AK> Books have always been my world; my life. Life in its purest meaning, nothing more. I’ve always had many books and still do.
PN > What’s behind the idea of Kasa dei Libri?
AK> As often occurs, Kasa dei Libri was born by coincidence. I inherited these beautiful apartments from my grandfather and decided, floor by floor, to turn them into what you see now. I started working on the first floor in 2002 and completed the three apartments in 2012. The second floor – connected to the first via a staircase – hosts our offices, while the third is allocated to art shows and events. Starting in 2008, the situation at the company I worked for changed, and so did its requirements. This allowed me to focus fully on Kasa dei Libri and its development.
PN > Was it immediately appreciated?
AK> People appreciated Kasa dei Libri a lot and continue to do so, but things are always very unpredictable. In the past, I organized disparate events like the Paul McCartney concert for 500 thousand people, the Italian essayist Sermonti at Santa Maria delle Grazie – which recorded a full house every night – and shows by “unknown” poets for 1 spectator. From 1 to infinity, or 1 to 500 thousand. Of course, Kasa cannot host an audience like the one for the McCartney concert, but we have the tools to handle quite big numbers. In the springtime, we opened an exhibition on the French magazine Derrière le miroir which attracted an audience beyond expectations. We organized a “dumpling-and-reading party” to celebrate the Chinese Nobel Prize in Literature Mo Yan in February 2013, partnering up with the Confucius Institute. People queued on the stairs to take part, there were loads! Today, on the other hand, we have to find new ways to attract visitors every day. We need to reinvent ourselves every day, that’s the unpredictable side.
PN > How important is it for Milan and the Portanuova District – an example of urban and architectural regeneration – to have Kasa dei Libri?
AK> This is a city of numbers: Kasa dei Libri is something else.
PN > Portanuova, the quintessential digital district and a symbol of innovation, and Kasa dei Libri, a container of the culture “of old”: a happy wedding, or a story that won’t ever work?
AK > You can say that at Kasa we represent the roots. If you flip through that book on the table, you will find Stefano Boeri’s sketch of Bosco Verticale before its construction began. This is my answer: Kasa was here before all of that.
PN > What is the emotional path of a printed book in a world that seems to be taken over by digital?
AK > Books will follow the road they’ve always taken, without being too delusional. Digital is extremely useful, as we all know, and has changed our lives a lot. We can buy a train ticket from home now, nobody needs to cue up at the station, and this would have been a dream when I was young. But as far as e-books go, it’s a different story. In the beginning, people said they would replace hard copies, but that’s not what happened. It happened for reference tools like encyclopaedias: they are cumbersome, while houses are growingly smaller and more frenetic – and obsolete, while Wikipedia is updated almost in real-time. No contest. But things are different for a book, which has always existed, is there on the shelf, and doesn’t need any updates. During the lockdown, we all had a taste of smart working, and digital has expanded to 90% of our lives, but no platform has even dreamed of outplaying the book.
PN > Do you think it’s true that Italians read and write as little as they say?
AK > Italians read nothing and write too much. Books, in particular. 70,000 books are published in Italy every year, 80% of which are completely useless. Italians read too little, but are also not encouraged enough. At school, the academic and boring use of the book influences kids to the point they completely stop reading. In Italy, the book is considered a sacred object you must fear and revere. In France, students study Les Misérables, the epic of a revolution, and young women and men are encouraged to express and fight for their opinions. In our country, we study I Promessi Sposi in which Manzoni criticizes the dissidents and praises the Governor. Our cultural environment affects reading, but also the content of books. We see reading as a punishment, that’s why nobody reads.
PN > Tell us about an extravagant event held at Kasa dei Libri.
AK> One of the coolest events we organized was the one for Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary in 2016. We created the “100-day” Shakespeare marathon, subdivided into 10 units of 10 days, each celebrating one of the playwright’s works. For “Romeo and Juliet”, we hired the actress Federica Fracassi. She interpreted Juliet, and I took a gamble by playing Romeo. We acted together on the balcony, just like in the script. The audience wore headsets and enthusiastically watched us from downstairs, then followed us for the entire play up to the doorstep of Kasa dei Libri. A super-fresh idea to stir up our structure and its event schedule.
PN > One last question: is your second space – Kapannone dei Libri of Angera (Varese) – organized like Kasa dei Libri of Milan?
AK > Kapannone has a different setup, but its industrial origins give it an even more special feel. Bright and 7 metres (23 ft) high, it is the perfect place for large audiences. The spirit is the same: visitors are cuddled and enchanted by culture and all its colours among the books, poems, and comics. It is neither a library nor a bookshop, but a space to walk around and investigate the origins and meanings of the setting and its objects. Just like Kasa, the goal of Kapannone is to convey the nature of books by showing inscriptions, letters, and their true stories. The origin of a book is the most important thing of all and keeps it alive forever. This is why we have 8 thousand books to discover and touch. Yessir, you can touch all of our objects. We place the most precious books on the top shelves to keep them away from the smaller hands, but other than that everything is made to be examined and studied in depth. Most people cannot make sense of our existence: we do not want money and we don’t make any. Perhaps that’s what makes us special.
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