Mirabilia is an unconventional bookshop. And some of its customers are “very unconventional”, too. We’ve had the pleasure to get to know some of them better, going behind the standard customer-bookseller relationship.
Alessandro Valieri first entered Mirabilia on a mid-December day. We immediately felt a special and mutual ‘vibration’. He came back many other times, and so we discovered that he was not only an affectionate client, but also a complex and charming character. This first issue of “Clienti Mirabiliosi” is dedicated to him.
MY LIFE ISN’T STEVE MCQUEEN’S AT ALL!
The life of every one of us travels on the tracks of bourgeois rules.
I’ve always done it as well, with a sort of ‘utilitarian’ attitude: if you’ve got no money, in this world and under these bourgeois rules, you get nothing.
That is why I have tried, since I was a child, to fit in a sort of ‘figure’ in order to get access to the world of desires: from the Little Prince onwards you learn that you need a golden coin if you want to reach the clouds.
That’s why I strove right from the start, in a pragmatic way, to get myself an opportunity more instead of two less.
My father is a physician and when I was a child I saw what being a doctor in a little town like Codigoro used to mean: being someone important, well-known and well-esteemed. It was not like being the ‘major’... but almost!
So, ever since I was a teenager, I decided to choose the same profession as my dad.
Growing up, I developed a sort of ‘obsessive’ attitude: I was born on September 2, I am a Virgo, and a lot of us is written in the stars, whether we like it or not. An earth sign, with a gift for organisation and pragmatism. So, I started to develope a huge mnemonic capacity (which was actually innate, but my mother and my grandparents had a great part in stimulating it). I became a sort of child prodigy: my parents used to carry me around, make me read 10 lines and repeat every single word by heart, leaving all bystanders open-mouthed. Such constant competition with myself led me to develop a stand-out attitude, always trying to escape the threat of ‘failure’ and the consequent “not getting the laurel wreath which will give you access to all the (above mentioned) bourgeois benefits”.
All this continued through middle and high school. At the end of my last school year, I decided to be examined in all subjects (!) and not just in two, as mandated by the school-system at the time. I even wrote a letter to the national board of education (and the national newspaper Il resto del Carlino even published some articles about my request... which I still keep at home!). At last, after a fierce battle, the board of education of Ferrara gave its consent. I was examined in all subjects, during more than 4 hours: I got 60/60 points, and more articles were published on local newspapers, catching the attention of the Rotary Club... Let’s put it this way: since I had no other talents to show, not being an artist or a creative, this was my way to “repeat the 10 lines” and be in the spotlight.
That final mark meant a lot for my access to the Medical School (which back then, as today, admitted a limited number of students): I got the third place out of 900 candidates, so I started studying medicine in Ferrara. After collecting a dozen of 30/30 (cum laude), my academic transcript started “walking on its own”, since no one of the professors dared to lower my average.
After graduating, I realised that a piece of paper wouldn’t be enough to make my future, so I entered a graduate school to prepare to private practice, giving up public health. I had to choose among 3 possible careers: ophthalmologist, otolaryngologist, or dermatologist (which was my father’s specialisation).
I chose to become an otolaryngologist for three reasons: it is a surgical branch – a bloody one, the bloodiest of all –, it requires physical strength, and it is invasive and destroying (and all this is definitely ‘mirabilia’, since it is undoubtedly one of the surgical branches that evokes the most mixed feelings, such as fear, wonder, disgust...). Also, this medical branch is strongly linked to a sense organ that had always fascinated me: the nose, which stands at the centre of the cranium just as a polar star, canalising three more sense organs!
COLLECTING: OBSESSION AND METHOD
I started collecting things since I was a child. As I’ve told you, I am a Virgo, so I had an astral inclination for serial planning, accumulation and juxtaposition of things: toy soldiers, Playmobil, Lego, every game had its classification, its properly stored box. I was already picturing the memories that would besiege me in opening that box again after many, many years(!). I always kept the packaging, the wrap, even the shoddiest one: from the Polistil car to the track, and up to the first Lima toy train... everything! I stored everything, even if it meant to give up the pleasure of actually playing: for example, I only played with toy cars on the table, being very careful not to waste them!
Another collection I made since childhood: old cinema tickets… the basic ones, very fragile, printed on an almost chemical paper, green or pink. And next to each ticket I glued on the notebook where I stored them, I used to write the date, the title of the movie and my rate.
I still keep all these things perfectly preserved. On the one hand, accumulation prevents you from really enjoying the object, but on the other hand, it provides the object with a huge ‘spiritual’ value, constantly evoking the moment when you wished for it/obtained it/had it in your hands. And such powerful, hedonistic pleasure only lasts a few minutes. The same thing happens with people: the first moments, when you meet someone, are unique: only those moments are really satisfying; all the others are mere, serial repetitions. Back to collecting: there is a constant need to renew this instant of pleasure with another object (just like a love story, or like drugs).
Then comes the ‘exhibition’: the research for recognition, by showing your treasures to the others, and hoping that they will understand that what you display expresses what you are. It isn’t easy at all: such a rare mechanism only works with a few people, maybe those who already know you.
A part of the ‘wonder’ also lies in knowing (or presuming) you own an object desired by many others, and in letting this item amaze people, triggering the maraviglia (as the members of the Medici family used to say).
The maraviglioso must awaken a feeling: even if it’s somewhat kitsch (from flashy, oriental style items, to the horrific cabinets a la Napoleon III) or disgusting, since also execrable objects rouse feelings (and this idea leads many collectors to make even crazy or illogical purchases!).
The art object has value in itself: if it is contemporary, there is always an artist selling it, and its quotation depends on the market; if we are talking about ancient art, there is usually a starting price or an appraisal. But wonder is something else: the real value of a wonderful object depends on buyers and their desire to own it. Sometimes there is a real pusher-addicted relationship between the buyer and the seller, because who sells is often able to enter the mind of collectors and to perceive their boundless desire for an object! Thus, wonder is not “the most beautiful thing”, but “the most desired one”. I am not interested in an art object as an ‘investment’, as a “high-priced good”: I seek an artwork that can rouse powerful feelings in me, hoping it might awake the same sensations in the others as well.
Sometimes this can lead to an endless research. Let’s make an example, starting with a scientific optical toolkit. We begin with telescopes and microscopes. Then we enter the world of sextants: and so the research turns to “nautical science”, leaving optics behind. Here our attention is caught by a digital measurement device for the cannonballs of a submarine. From submarines, we pass into the world of ‘militaria’: a knife is both a defensive and an offensive weapon. If the knife comes from the East, we may enter the world of ‘Japan’. From ‘Japan’ to ‘heroism’ it’s one small step: who were the heroes? From heroes we come back to war, and specifically to World War II, and end up looking for a particular Nazi postal stamp. It’s a very peculiar stream of consciousness, which I know I share with all the people burning with my same passion, in a sort of network peopled by the same faces. We meet at auctions, at fairs: I personally know many of them, and we greet each other... with many others we don’t talk, but we are happy to meet again at the same places.
A ‘mirabilia’ thing has another, essential feature: it must be ‘unique’, irreplaceable, irreproducible. Seriality would prevent it from being ‘mirabilia’.
As for the ‘exchanges’, that are the lifeblood of traditional collections such as postal stamps, coins, stickers, Subbuteo, they are miles away from ‘mirabilia’ collections: I don’t know anyone who has ever exchanged/given away/resold wunder objects. Because that object became a part of your past, a part of you: and you can’t sell a feeling.
As a child, I used to go to the mountain with my paternal grandfather, one of the first collectors I met in my family.
He had a particular way of thinking: he strongly believed that the limitation of something increased the desire we had for that thing, and that such privation strengthened the spirit, developing discipline. So, during our long hikes, he used to ration water, which was the thing we needed the most when we were tired, more than food.
This odd behaviour taught me to value things, especially bargaining chip, money. But most of all, it taught me to solve another age-old problem tormenting collectors (those who don’t live in a museum, but in a home): ‘space’, which normally is never enough to contain all the items of their collections! The solution is ‘rotation’: there are huge ‘side-lines’ (just like in football) from where you can pick objects from time to time, regularly replacing and moving them. In the end, all this multiplies the pleasure, since when you haven’t seen an object for a while… you start missing it... and desiring it even more (just like water when hiking with my grandfather)!
As for the obsessive manias of collectors: do you remember the first edition of Dylan Dog comics? Back then they used a different kind of paper... a very weird one. Also, the cover of the first issue of September 1986 was mainly black. I used to read Martin Mystère, Mister No... my uncle read Tex Willer, but Dylan Dog was expressly designed to catch people like me, who love mysteries, discoveries and riddles. Well… when reading Dylan Dog I used to wear gloves!! Because otherwise I would have left my fingerprints on the inked paper of the first issues… and you couldn’t wipe them off (not even with microfiber rags)!! I remember that in summer I used to read Dylan Dog on the beach… and even then I was wearing gloves!
Here is another obsession: the spine of a book always cracks when you open it again and again. So, in order to avoid this, I usually read books ‘half-open’. If you come to my home and look at the spine of the books you could well say: “they are unread!”... yet, if you look inside, you’ll see they are all underlined.
More collector’s paranoias: when I enter a shop I hardly ever leave without buying something, since otherwise I feel something like somatic stomach ache, an enormous sense of frustration. That’s because I always have great expectations of finding something new when I enter a shop.
A good procedure is essential in developing a collection.
When you go to an auction, or a market, if you don’t want to buy all you have to do is leave money at home. I never go out without money, because I always think that I could buy something I don’t need… but that turns out I actually, imperiously need. And if I leave a shop without buying anything I always feel horribly frustrated.
You can give due weight to possession when you can give due weight to the need of that possession. If you give your kids new toys every day, without making them aware that those toys have been bought and come with a price… they can’t enjoy the pleasure to own and collect them.
SOME WEIRD, VERY ‘WUNDER’ PLACES
An abandoned place means both physical and spiritual abandon to me; so, everybody take their spirit to a place that is normally uninhabited.
One of those weird (and disturbing) places that have always fascinated me is the house where Pupi Avati shot the movie The House with Laughing Windows, near to Comacchio (which is a very peculiar place in itself... a city on water). When I was young, the most amusing game for me was to climb over the fence with my friends and go inside that house even if (or precisely because) it was forbidden. Years later, always with my friends, we came back there in the night, and even shot some videos in found footage style.
Another place I adore in Romagna is the former Eridania headquarters in Forlì, an abandoned industrial area whose space, magic and music were unique. It twists and turns, among unstable blast furnaces, toxic substances, risk of rusting, snakes suddenly coming out of nowhere... this too is ‘wunder’, it is the ‘weird’: places evoking powerful feelings such as fear (a feeling I adore, and that has accompanied me during my whole life).
Ferrara, more than Bologna, surely is something unique among weird places. During the Renaissance, this city was ruled and loved by a court that hid the most different meanings in many different corners. One of the places I love the most in Ferrara is the Church of the Corpus Domini, where you can find the sarcophaguses of the Este family: a little-known place you can only visit upon request, to encounter the spirit of those who several centuries ago were the actual protagonists of that court life.
To search and visit tombs, ossuaries, cemeteries is one of the things that lead me from San Martino della Battaglia, in Lombardy, with its spiraling tower decorated with skulls, to the Church of San Bernardino alle Ossa in Milan, and then to the Church of the Dead in Urbania, some 20 km away from Urbino, boasting the best-preserved mummies in the world (a little-known place, run by an unconventional guide… you can visit it for 2 euros). Among the museums I love, my favourite one is the Natural History Museum in Venice. This place is left out of any tourist itinerary, and maybe this makes it all the more magic and unique. Another weird museum I adore talking about is the Spallanzani Museum in Reggio Emilia, founded by the historian, biologist and scholar Lazzaro Spallanzani. It is open on working days from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., awkward opening times for visitors, especially for those who don’t live in Reggio Emilia!
Sometimes weird places were deliberately or undeservedly made weird: which is why I strongly support and foster FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano), a national institution always striving to promote lots of these neglected places that are as beautiful as many other, most famous monuments. The only problem of FAI is that it is “weird and secret” too: this deserving institution is little-known, except for the occasional mainstream events (such as the “Giornate del FAI”, the “FAI Days”).
MIRABILIA AND I
I bumped into Mirabilia by chance. It was a mid-December day, and I was in Bologna with my daughter to buy some Christmas gifts. Despite the late hour, the mountain of gift packs and the tiredness, it dazzled me, and I couldn’t help entering (and buying!).
I immediately thought “This is my dreamland!”. And also: “I must invest on Mirabilia!”
I was attracted by the name of the bookshop, the decal logo at the entrance, the refined spaces and the style of the display. I knew immediately that Mirabilia isn’t a place for ‘economies’: as soon as you enter, you can see that behind this place there is an editorial group, a mind, an ambition, an idea, a strong and forward-looking project.
You have a wonderful job: you are in a beautiful place (since it’s not common to work under a frescoed barrel vault) in the centre of a magical city, and when you close the shop, no matter where you live or where you have parked your car, you walk on a gorgeous street. This is something valuable, and we often forget how many precious things we have always before our eyes.
Among the objects I found in Mirabilia, the ones that fascinated me the most are undoubtedly the ‘assemblies’ by Fausto Gazzi. I found his lamps wonderful. I was especially stunned by the one called “Dental Phantom” because, even if I am an otolaryngologist, I didn’t know what the “Dental Phantom” was, and at first I even thought it belonged to the category of ‘militaria’. This lamp is assembled and displayed with an extremely wunder taste, in compliance with the German wunderschön (“incredible... I mean, really?... How was it possible to put it together in that way?!”).
Other amazing items I found in Mirabilia are the earrings by Laura Cadelo Bertrand: these jewels are not ‘precious’ in a commercial sense, but because they are ‘rarities’. Her works, even the most recent ones, reveal uncommon genius and creativity.
Furthermore, Mirabilia introduced me to an artist that I already consider as a ‘friend’, Enrico “El Fooser” Fuser: because Mirabilia puts people in contact, creating mental networks between persons that would have never met otherwise. And this is something that happens very rarely when you visit bookshops and stores in general.
Yet, if you ask me what are the most ‘mirabilia’ things I’ve ever seen... the answer would be of course: my daughters!