A passion for books

Written by  Patrizia Segna
Portrait of an editor and of an era, in a conversation from a by gone age with Gabriele Corbo.
After more than thirty years in the world of publishing and art, he has published more than four hundred books; he is an attentive critic, a connoisseur of twentieth-century art and a top-class printer. You can tell that he has always had a passion and love for his work by way he talks about books, the way he touches them. In conversation with Gabriele Corbo in his office in Ferrara, filled with books, paintings and sculptures, I felt myself drawn into a precious and dazzling world of culture.

When did you start work in the world of publishing, and why did you choose Ferrara as your base?

I started in the Sixties, in Padua. Then, at the beginning of the Seventies, I decided to return to my birthplace, a decision which has allowed me to publish many books relating to the history and art of Ferrara.

Which Italian artists have you known well, and which would you have liked to get to know, but were unable to?

I got to know all the ones I wanted to. Thanks to my publishing business, I have met huge numbers of artists, writers, poets and intellectuals: Carlo Levi, Leonardo Sciascia,Guttuso, Attardi, Montale? and a great many others.

We know that you became great friends with Carlo Levi. How did you get to know him?

I got to know Carlo Levi in the years when he worked and lived in Villa Strohl-Fern. Levi was a doctor, painter, writer and journalist, and was always brimming with an intense energy illuminated by understanding smiles, whoever he was talking to. I got to know him quickly and then we became friends. I will never forget the conversations in his elegant house on Via Tomacelli in Rome, where he moved after leaving Villa Strohl-Fern. Carlo Levi is an extraordinary connoisseur of the human heart.

Did you prefer his work as a writer or as a painter? And do you believe that writing and painting share a common language?

Let us take Christ stopped at Eboli as an example: it is more like a big painting than a book. Carlo Levi is the same artist whether he is using words or a paintbrush, there is no difference. If we believe that Levi the writer is different from Levi the painter, it means we have failed to understand him.
You only need to look at the big canvases produced in Aliano to understand how a man who was born, brought up and educated in Northern Italy has understood Southern Italy, though it is misunderstood by many, and has done it with great sensitivity and accuracy, and was able to represent it both on the page and on the canvas.

As an anti-Fascist, Carlo Levi was a political prisoner from 1935 to 1936 in Aliano, which he speaks of in Christ stopped at Eboli, published in 1945 by Einaudi. Did he ever speak to you of this period?

Carlo Levi never spoke about this experience. I got the impression that he really didn't want to talk about it, neither among friends nor when we were talking together. He only once referred to an episode from the Aliano period: a local Fascist bigwig, who knew that Levi often worked as a doctor for free to treat the health problems of the poor, banned him from doing so any more, threatening him with the full weight of the legal system if he disobeyed. Levi was forced to comply, mainly so as not to get the poor people who asked for his help into trouble. After a few months, it was the Fascist's own turn to ask for his help, because his son had serious health problems. Levi reminded him of his own threat, pointing out that, much to his regret, it prevented him from assisting.
The Fascist revoked the order, and from that day on Levi was able to cure not only the rich man's son, but also the poor ? of whom there were many ? who asked for his help.

What was it that you liked most about Carlo Levi?

His sincerity and his interest in people, in human beings. He was generous, he knew how to listen and converse like an oldtime scholar, yet he was always in tune with the present. I often saw Levi as a luminous creature of the night.

What did you get out of your friendship with Carlo Levi?

First of all, the friendship itself, a priceless gift; then, as I got to know him, I got closer to that vast body of thought, with a growing conviction of the importance of bonds formed by life, actions, art and memory. I said to myself that it is not possible to separate genius and study, creation and learning.
As I listened to him, I asked myself: is it possible to have untrammelled,profound knowledge without books? No, without books there are no ideas; this is why conquerors, tyrants and dictators have burned books that propagated independent ideas, ideas which neither agreed with nor submitted to dominant thinking.
It was really through the teaching of Carlo Levi that I started to become interested in publishing, printing, copper engraving and intaglio printmaking, where the marks are incised into a surface.
For decades I had a printing company, Stamperia del Cedro,in the Trastevere area of Rome, though I left it in 2003. There I worked with many artists, including some of Carlo Levi's best friends, such as Nini Gromo, Cattaneo and Berto Vigano, plus others including Attardi, Janic, Faro and Mirri. Then I moved into publishing in the true sense, in Padua, Rome and finally in Ferrara. But that is another story, which I came to through the lucky connections wrought by Carlo Levi's oratorical magic.