Archives with kitchens: Luigi Balsamini interviewed by Carlo De Maria on Anarchist Libraries and Archives

Anarchists tend to give everything away for the cause, right down to the very last remaining copy, and this means that today lots of their stuff can only be found lodged in the police archives – like the itineraries of Luigi Fabbri, Ugo Fedeli, Camillo Berneri or Pier Carlo Masini’s dream of opening an Institute for the History of the Anarchist Movement.

An interview with Luigi Balsamini

Luigi Balsamini, librarian and bibliographer, lives and works in Urbino. For some years now he has been grappling with the history of anarchism and recently he published (through Vecchiarelli publishers in Rome) a significant book called Fragile Carte (Fragile Papers) and subtitled The anarchist movement in libraries, archives and documentation centres.

CdM: Reading your book I was taken aback by the link, including a sentimental one, that you have managed to establish between the existence of some leading anarchist activists and the history of their correspondence and personal libraries. It seems to me that the vagaries of their individual lives – marked primarily by their uncompromising opposition to fascism – is reflected in the dispersion and difficulty one finds in recovering their collected papers.

I ought to say that in most instances members of the anarchist movement have never paid any special heed to maintaining a lengthy record of their activities, for reasons that we can readily guess. Living as they did, and as you state, an often precarious existence, these were people continually subject to searches and confiscation of personal belongings and often they left to go into exile and were therefore frequently on the move from one city to another, one country to another. We can understand how, during antifascist exile, documents might even have been regarded as a hindrance. It hard to keep a collection or a library together in conditions like those. Besides which, in many cases, there was not even any appreciation that preserving historical memory might also mean providing the foundations for one’s own political identity. And this probably because, for a movement committed to radically changing the status quo, such matters always had to take a back seat. And so it came about that militant pamphlets or reviews disappeared after a few months, even from the shelves in the movement’s political premises; they preferred to distribute them to the very last copy, for the sake of propaganda and the revolutionary goal. Oddly enough, today historians often stumble upon the odd pamphlet or single edition paper in the police’s archives, because no anarchist militant took it into his head to set one side or to ensure that it survived.

Yet there are a few isolated individuals, exceptional inside the movement, who developed a book-lover mentality. Among them, for instance, are Luigi Fabbri and Pier Carlo Masini and, looking further afield, Max Nettlau for sure.

In Luce Fabbri’s splendid biography of her father, she amusingly recalls that when Luigi received his salary as an elementary schoolteacher - we are talking about the early days of fascist rule here, when the Fabbri family was living between Bologna and Corticella – the first thing he did was to go with Luce to the Veronesi antiquarian bookstore in the Paviglione near the Piazza Maggiore, to buy a book. This was a ritual “outing” repeated at the end of every month. The great thing is – as Luce tells it – her father tried to repress his book-lover mentality (it seeming to him to be unreasonable to encourage it, he being an anarchist political militant); but when he stumbled upon some fine and sometimes rare edition that might enrich his collection, he would break into a grin that brightened his whole face. During their time in Bologna, Fabbri began to build up his collection. For the most part the books were not bought but review copies sent to his review Il Pensiero, in the columns of which Fabbri used to review dozens upon dozens of books. He was a voracious reader and found it easy to write. Later, in 1926, as the fascist regime turned nastier, he made up his mind to leave Italy, moving first to France and then to Uruguay, finally settling in Montevideo …

And what of his papers in these moves?

Back in the days when the fascists had yet to come to power and faced with the expeditions mounted by Bologna’s fascists, Fabbri used to tremble at the thought of what might befall his library, this in addition to his worries about his family’s safety.

Everything he had built up was in jeopardy. When the time came for him to move abroad in 1926 he passed his documentary assets over to Torquato Nanni, a lawyer in the Romagna, a man of socialist background who had, however, become close to the fascist regime). The fact is that for nearly twenty years Fabbri’s library remained in Nanni’s home in Santa Sofia in the Appennines between the Romagna and Tuscany. However, instead of being safe there, the book collection met a tragic end because during the civil war Nanni’s house was looted and ransacked. Any of Fabbri’s books that survived this were to be handed over – on Luce Fabbri’s decision (her father having died in Montevideo in 1935) – after the war to the Archiginnasio in Bologna [a 16th century palace which houses the Bologna city library/archives]. Remember that to this very day the Fabbri Archive at the Archiginnasio is, for all its tormented history, the chief collection of periodical press about the anarchist movement accessible to us in Italy. All of this bibliographical material came from Santa Sofia. As I said, in 1926 Fabbri fled from Italy without taking his library with him. However, he resumed collecting in Uruguay and the stuff he amassed in exile was divided up by his daughter, Luce, who sent some of it, in batches, to the Archiginnasio, albeit that the bulk of it was handed over to the Amsterdam-based International Institute for Social History where there is in fact a Fabbri Archive including his private archives and papers from his years in exile.

Reflecting on Fabbri’s adventures as well as those of Camillo Berneri, who gets a mention in the book, we can see the importance of family and, more especially, of female family members in preserving the letters and thus the memories; we have in mind Luigi Fabbri’s daughter, Luce, as well as Berneri’s widow, Giovanna Caleffi. A superficial examination of anarchism might bring to mind heroes isolated from or downright untouched by day to day affection, whereas the family unit’s internal bonds are often crucial and come into their own in the most critical times, such as days spent in exile.

Yes, those ties were crucial. Besides, the anarchist movement has never had an organisation comparable – as far as I know – with the Communist Party. So, especially in exile, the personal has counted for much more than the political. By which I mean that the anarchists’ organisational network relied essentially on family bonds; in Fabbri’s case, in Berneri’s case which you have also examined, and that goes for Ugo Fedeli as well: Fedeli’s library had his wife Clelia for a guardian angel .

The Fedeli case strikes me as quite interesting, not least in relation to the collaboration with [typewriter mogul] Adriano Olivetti.

Fedeli was a bibliophile and no mistake and he felt none of the misgivings that Fabbri did about letting it be known. He was a true collector, a real magpie. He himself admitted that he had an irrepressible passion for the printed word. Over time he built up a massive archive. However, even he had to deal with the experience of living as an antifascist exile (in Germany, France and Uruguay), leaving boxes of books, newspapers, pamphlets and documents in a range of safe locations from Paris to Montevideo.

After the war, having returned to Italy, he helped with the rebuilding of the anarchist movement. His life took a turn in the 1950s when his library and his bibliographical talents came to the attention of Adriano Olivetti. At the time, Olivetti had gathered about him in Ivrea which might be described as a mini-colony of anarchists who adhered to a respectfully critical line on Olivetii’s version of ‘capitalism with a human face’ and indeed detected some chance of working in conjunction with him. In Ivrea, Olivetti opened a library which came into existence as an after-work library facility but soon turned into something much more substantial: an out and out cultural centre complete with classes, seminars and lectures for the factory’s employees. A cultural institution that was part and parcel of the social benefits that Olivetti offered his employees. All of these ventures were to be seen, of course, also as having an eye to keeping a lid on social conflict. Fedeli was hired for Ivrea as library assistant. The amusing point is that, whilst on the one hand he was working for Olivetti as a librarian, on the other he proved incapable of getting his own personal library in order: his home in Ivrea was packed with cardboard boxes stacked one on top of another and he could never lay hands on anything he needed. Revealing here is his dense correspondence with Pier Carlo Masini (Masini was starting his own collection at the time and the pair used to swap ‘doubles’ and bibliographical tips and so on) as Fedeli often replied to Masini with the words: “Yes, I have the pamphlet but I have no idea where I’ve put it.” Meaning that, paradoxically, whilst working as a librarian, he could never quite get his own books – of which he had many – into any sort of order. He had no idea where to put them. His document archive too is now with the Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, having been, among other things, catalogued in 2008 by Antonio Senta.

Can you tell us something about Masini, in relation to his complicated political itinerary?

Yes but it has to be said that the parallels with Fedeli extends only to the collection of materials. As to anything else, they were two complete opposites when it came to writing of history. In the sense that they were both ‘collectors’, that is, people who enjoyed building a collection, but they put their collections to entirely different uses. Fedeli had had no scientific training as a researcher and historian and was, when all is said and done, a militant in the anarchist movement: what he was interested in was passing on a political tradition, commemorating people and events that he had often known well or experienced at first hand. Lots of what he wrote was primarily personal recollection bereft of the scientific rigours of a historical study.

Masini was the opposite and the rigorous reconstruction of anarchism’s history was turned by him into an out and out cultural battle within the movement. Which did not mean setting political passions to one side (as De Martino had it, one cannot jettison political passion and write history without heart). But Masini’s was a reasoned reading and his library represented his work tool, more than mere collecting. It is telling that he wrote virtually nothing about his being a book-lover and a collector even though this was a strong factor in his personality: as far as he was concerned – to repeat myself – the collecting was simply part and parcel of his task. In short, in Masini, the militant, the bibliophile and the historian went hand in glove.

And more specifically the Tuscan historian’s political preferences?

Back in 1945 Masini joined the PCI (Italian Communist Party) and held the office of deputy mayor in San Casciano Val di Pesa. Very shortly thereafter, though, he joined the anarchist movement, quickly becoming a leading personality within it. From 1947-48 onwards he was banging on about the need to set up a historical institute of the anarchist movement, a study centre or archive-cum-library, a reference point for research into the movement. Anarchism had to be able to compete with other political parties at an appropriate cultural level and thereby display its own dignity; this was during the times when the Gramsci Institute (1950) and Modigliani Foundation (1949) were being set up. Even though his lobbying made little impact inside the anarchist movement, any more than the idea (which he backed) for an anarchist encyclopaedia did, Masini did not lose heart and carried on collecting papers and books himself.

In the 1950 he left the Italian Anarchist Federation (FAI) and was one of the sponsors of the GAAP (Anarchist Proletarian Action Groups), trying to recruit more members through working class struggles, the idea being to set up a movement with better structures than the anarchist movement had. Later the GAAP flirted with the Marxist left whereas Masini, having joined the Socialist Party, ultimately joined the social democratic party. In any event, although he gradually drifted out of the anarchist camp and away from active politics generally, he was always to display consistent sympathy for the anarchist movement, as well as an unflinching commitment to researching the libertarian and federalist roots of Italian socialism.

In 1969 he finally managed to organise and open his own library, called after Max Nettlau. He opened it in Bergamo where he was working as a supervisor of studies. At the time, apart from the Berneri Family Archive run by Aurelio Chessa and open since 1962, the ‘Max Nettlau’ was the only institute keeping the memory of the anarchist movement alive and it represented a sound reference point for anybody investigating the history of Italian socialism. There were doctoral candidates who brought their theses to Masini so that he might put them straight on their theses. A visit to the Nettlau Library was practically de rigueur.

That ‘public function’ so to speak, lasted until the mid-1970s and then Masini relocated the library to a site in the Bergamo countryside and there, inevitably, the numbers of its users started to decline, even though he had taken the trouble to install a guest room. The results of his efforts to unearth and collect have survived and are today in the care of the Angelo Mai Library in Bergamo and the Serantini Library in Pisa.

You mentioned the experience of the Berneri Family Archive and Aurelio Chessa. Could you fill us in on them?

Chessa was the very first person in Italy to implement the intention to preserve the memory of the anarchist movement, or at any rate a significant part of it: the Berneri family, Aurelio had worked on the editorial board of Volonta, alongside Giovanna Caleffi Berneri. When Caleffi died in 1962, he found himself handling Camillo Berneri’s personal correspondence, as left by his daughter Giliana. To which was added all the stuff that Aurelio himself had collected since 1945. Chessa was soon receiving overtures from the Institute for Social History in Amsterdam, always on the look-out for archival sources, but he consulted Masini who rightly encouraged him to keep the Berneri correspondence in Italy. In essence, Masini told Chessa: “Let’s not send these letters a long way away. Let’s keep them here and see what can be done.” He recommended Olivetti or even the Feltrinelli Library, but Chessa was certainly not likely to be handing over anarchist movement correspondence to the Feltrinelli … So he decided to give it his all and commit his life to this archive, the Berneri Family Archive, which had continued to grow in the meantime. Its story is one of continually relocating from one set of premises to another and from town to town up until it found a relatively stable location in Pistoia where his archive is connected to the Forteguerriana Library, although it has premises of its own. In 1992, though, the idyll in Pistoia came to an end: Chessa handed over the keys to the director of the Forteguerriana Library and off it went to Puglia where temporary new premises had been found for the Archive. Read Chessa’s correspondence with the Pistoia city administration. Our broad view is that Chessa had no idea of how to deal with bureaucrats. At one point – for instance – the city of Genoa had suggested to him that all his holdings be turned over to the State Archives; objectively speaking, that might have made a good arrangement and a contract is often drawn up safeguarding ownership and so on.

But Chessa would not see reason and zeroed in on a seemingly pointless question that was, as far as he was concerned, crucial: if he agreed to deposit the letters with the State Archive, would it have to abide by the Archive’s opening and closing times, from 8.00 a.m. to 7.00 p.m.? and his attitude was: “But what happens if a student working on a thesis turns up? I can’t show him the door at 7.00 p.m. just because it’s ‘closing time’.”

In fact, when it was in Pistoia, the Berneri Family Archive was open around the clock: around the clock in the sense that on occasion researchers were even allowed to sleep over: and Chessa would rustle up some grub, good grub it was too …

As his daughter Fiamma also does these days at the Berneri Family-Aurelio Chessa Archive in Reggio Emilia …

Precisesly, just like Fiamma.

Effectively these are archives with kitchen facilities …

Yes archives with kitchens … places of study and places to meet and socialise as well. It is brilliant, that sort of all round accessibility. Besides anybody who travels for research purposes runs into a series of problems, very material problems: often one has to spend three or four days in a given city and grapple with certain expenses.

Returning to your book, I was struck by a quote from Piero Brunello that you cite where he declares that he prefers the expression “libertarian historiography” over “anarchist historiography”. I must confess I myself prefer the former to describe – as Brunello puts it – “a glance at history that has freedom in its heart and therefore reflects on power”. This, as I see it, is the great critical value of anarchism, from the viewpoint of historiography, that it can lead to reflection upon issues of freedom and power.

True, You are exactly right. Talking about anarchism’s correspondence is not the same as talking about anarchism’s history.

Instead we should be taking a broader view of the forms of power and the scope for freedom. Besides, that was Masini’s great lesson: reflect on anarchism’s history, by all means, but reflect more widely on “-archies”, on the forms of power.

Instead it is very often the case that the student of the anarchist movement studies anarchism and sees nothing beyond that.

From: Una Cittá, No 168, October 2009. Translated by: Paul Sharkey.