The “surly grace” of Trieste’s Libreria Antiquaria Umberto Saba
by Rino Alessi
Libreria Antiquaria Umberto Saba – celebrated by the many admirers of the poet who immortalized Trieste’s “surly grace” – is located at the commercial center of the city.
To be precise, it is at Via San Nicolò 30, now part of a popular pedestrian area that over the decades has been graced by great intellectuals of the past and present. On October 20, 1904, James Joyce happened there when he came to teach at the local Berlitz School, also on Via San Nicolò. Once off the train, the Irish writer had the misfortune of getting into a brawl with some English sailors – so the man who would one day pen the world-famous “Ulysses” spent his first night in Trieste at the Austrian Police station.
At the time, Via San Nicolò was a strategic location because it faced the sea – which was much closer to the city than it is today – and bustled with stores, warehouses, and hotels.
In 1914, the bookstore that was known by then as Libreria Max Quidde – founded in 1833 as Libreria Börner, later changing to F.H. Schimpff – moved from the nearby Piazza della Borsa to its current address, in a building designed by Arturo Ziffer. It was owned by publisher and bookseller Giuseppe Mayländer, who after buying it in 1904 had began publishing weekly magazine “Il Palvese”. Mayländer had Slataper and Saba among his collaborators, and was the one who named the bookstore “Libreria Antica e Moderna”.
In 1919, he sold to Giorgio Fano and Umberto Poli, who would later take the penname Umberto Saba; on September 12 of the same year, the writer became sole proprietor of the store.
In 1920, Saba published his “Light and Airy Things” and his friend Virgilio Giotti’s “Il mio cuore e la mia casa”. The following year, he put out “The Songbook 1900-1921”. In 1922, the bookstore had a bad year, with daily sales dropping from 300 to 100 liras a day. In 1924, Saba hired clerk Carlo Cerne, who he said helped him “more with actions than with words”. In 1940, Cerne and Ettore Ferrari, of Aryan descent, took over the bookstore from Saba and his partner Alberto Stock to avoid the effects of anti-Jewish laws. In 1947, Libreria Antiquaria resumes publishing catalogs. In 1948, Saba and his trusted assistant became co-owners.
After Saba’s death in 1957, Cerne started managing the bookstore on his own. His son Mario inherited the business after his death in 1981. “I always came to the bookstore,” he says. “But Saba was a grumpy man who didn’t like having kids around, so I would come to talk to my father and then leave. In the late 1960s I started helping my father, who had become the only owner after acquiring Saba’s daughter Lina’s share. Today, I keep working to keep his memory alive.”
According to Cerne, “the city has completely forgotten [about Saba], except for the statue that was erected a stone’s throw from the bookstore, which still waits for someone to replace the pipe and walking stick that some vandal has stolen.”
Yet in the rest of the world Saba is translated in every possible language: there is an unabridged edition of “Songbook” in Japanese, a few poems in Chinese, and almost all of his works have been published on a journal in Portuguese, thanks to a research center in São Paulo, Brazil. After a recent renovation by the Biblioteca Marciana, and thanks to funding by the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Libreria Antiquaria Umberto Saba continues to be a favorite of bibliophiles both famous and unknown. “Among politicians of the past, Spadolini used to come often,” Cerne remembers. “More recently, I’ve been impressed by Mario Borghezio’s passion for books. I’ve also seen Violante, and Berlusconi – when he was first minister – while they were in Trieste for personal matters.”
Local intellectual Claudio Magris – like Giotti, Stuparich, and Slataper before him – is also a patron. On the occasion of “The Trieste of Magris” exhibition, the Via San Nicolò bookstore was recreated in Barcelona. Vittorio Sgarbi has said he would like to repeat the experience in Milan for one of the exhibitions he curates. While we wait for that project to come to life, Mario Cerne continues to defend a treasure that has been widely recognized as a monument to memory. He has also just published a booklet in which Saba’s most famous poem, “Trieste”, is translated into sixteen languages, as well as Friuli’s and Trieste’s dialects.