One of the frustrating things about long stays in Italy is that every little village you happen to visit seems to have a story that unravels slowly and spans several hundred years, if not thousands. The terminally interested can get lost in interesting threads, as I do.
Yesterday we visited Montereggio, for example. Heard of it? Of course you haven’t. It’s small, tiny even, though rather famous among some bookish characters.
Montereggio came to my attention when a map I had bought called it a booktown. I had no idea what that was or why little Montereggio, a mere annotated speck on a map, could be lauded as a booktown. Italy’s only booktown I might add
So we loaded all the maps of the region we could find into the Citroen and started out. At first the roads were fine, of normal Lunigiana narrowness, but paved at least. Then they got twisty. But finally, spanning a narrow ridge, Montereggio came into view. Maybe 50 houses. It had a parking lot. A belltower. Not much else of note.
The town did have these little nooks—passageways, open entryways and such. Inside these nooks there were tables loaded with books. Nearby was the notice you see in the picture. It says to put money into the little mailbox thingy corresponding to the price of books you wanted. You can see the sign better if you click the little picture.
In any case, on a Monday in October, except for the stacks of books hidden in dark passageways and a couple of workers resurrecting a terrace, it seemed we were alone in the village. It was one of those single street villages. We went up and back and out the other side a bit, where we saw two women collecting chestnuts. Further on was the cemetery.
On the road out of town we had spotted a restaurant which was also a hotel. We dismounted the little town by walking rather briskly down a ramp that ended at the door, but the restaurant seemed deserted. We peeked in. A woman, no doubt noticing our voyeuristic tendencies, eventually came to the door.
“Will the restaurant be open?”
“Adesso.” Now, which we took as an invitation to enter.
It was only a few minutes past noon, but the locals were already eating. There were tables set for other regulars. We ate a huge meal. Gnocchi with meat sauce, a platter of boiled beans, baked shoulder of pork, a platter of cheese with whole rounds of it, eat what you want. It was good, hearty food, typical of an Italian roadhouse.
That, in a chestnut shell, is Montereggio. So how did it become a booktown?
Well, all started back in the 15th century with Gutenberg’s Bible fragment in 1456, as you know. The Lunigiana got a kick start on the book trade in 1471 when Jacopo da Fivizzano started printing in the town of Fivizzano. (You can visit the printing museum in Fivizzano today. Stop by the Bar Ricci first for a zeppole, if they have them.)
In 1493 a local, Sabastiano da Pontremoli (a reference to another Lunigiana village, close to Montereggio) went to Milan to learn printing and returned to Montereggio to become the first bookseller. By the 16th century, many of his countrymen had started loading up wicker baskets full of books and selling them first in Pontremoli, then further out into the plains. Eventually they covered northern Italy into Germany.
The book-selling trade out of Montereggione expanded well into the 19th century as books became affordable for the masses. The whole story is, of course, more complex than this, and involves the poverty that came with the collapse of the silk trade in the north and the transformation of workers from that trade to knife and tool sellers and sharpeners who kept note of markets and fairs in a “Brianzino” or almanac. It was easy for the tool sellers to transform themselves to booksellers, given the enormous interest in this thing called a book that many small villagers wanting their knives sharpened had never seen before.
As the historic center of all this book selling, Montereggio went on to to host Italy’s premier literary prize, the Premio Bancarella for the first time in 1952. Since then the Premio Bancarella has been awarded in Pontremoli.