Flood in '66.
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- Slide Rules
At the end of the year 2000, my second major professional "turning point". After 20 years of computer science, the decision to switch to a completely different activity: from computers ... to nibs & Inks! Up to that moment, Calligraphy had been for me a simple pastime. From time to time, I would take my nibs, inks and calligraphy pens out of the drawer (purchases made in London in the late 1970s) and spent a few hours fiddling with various types of writing. As it often happens at the beginning, I was attracted by the ancient 'Gothic' styles, and then later moved on to other styles as well. Then, I'd put everything back in the drawer and resumed my 'normal' activities.
In the brief working interlude at the European University Institute, I had occasionally tried my hand at writing names and addresses by hand on the invitations and envelopes for invitations to the various conferences. A little exercise that, in addition to being appreciated, might have been the seed of what would follow.
I was very undecided about my future. Among the many alternatives I considered, there was even that of buying a newsagent's kiosk. Or, a stationery shop - from an early age I was always fascinated by those places full of pencils, erasers, notebooks and so on. And in fact, at first I opted for a stationery shop. But a very special kind of stationery shop, where I can sell nibs and inks! In Florence only a few fine art shops kept nibs for sale: a scarce variety and mainly from drawing or, in any case, with a fine point. Those with a 'flat point' were just not available. A small idea, but one that turned to be a 'winner'!
The idea was there, now I needed to turn it all in practice. Internet was still at an early stage, but the search for nib factories was certainly easier than by other means. Presently I got in touch with two English companies and, through a distributor, with a German one. From there it was a short step: I found suitable premises that, coincidentally, had been used for a stationery shop, in the Piazza Savonarola area, not far from my house. With the invaluable help of my partner, who later became my wife, and some true friends, the two tiny rooms (one upstairs to keep my stock, were restored and transformed into a small "writing cave". I already had in mind the style of the furniture: simple wooden furniture ... a kind of small living room, plus a desk to use for writing and as a sales counter.
I tried to keep the purpose of the shop secret until everything was ready for opening: it had to be a surprise! And indeed, for the first period it was a surprise, but not in the sense that I had hoped for: people passed by, threw a look at the window and murmured: "But this guy is crazy! Nibs & inks in the 'computer era?"; "In full year 2000?". These passers-by didn't realize that I could hear everything, because of certain cracks between the window and the outside ... But I was not discouraged. It takes patience in things and in fact, little by little, many of those people later became regular customers. Not all for calligraphy: I also sold excellent fountain pens.
In 2001 I thought that by offering Calligraphy courses, I could approach a wider range of customers. I made contact with a very talented calligrapher from Pistoia, Simona Bartolini, who graduated in Calligraphy at the University of Roehampton, in England. We immediately became friends and that was the beginning of a long partnership. The courses were quite successful - either because of the novelty or because there were actually several curious and interested people. The first courses were held in the premises of the nearby Liceo Cavour, a school where among other things, my son was a student. Thanks to the generosity of the Director, who offered me the free use of a classroom, one evening a week, I was able to go ahead with the project. A great help for me. Another help in spreading my initiatives came from a journalist from "La Nazione", Alfredo Scanzani, to whom a mutual friend had talked about my shop. In conjunction with the first course, a nice photo of me came out in the 'Diary of Florence'! And others came out periodically afterwards, when I announced that I had transcribed the entire Divine Comedy by hand, and on the occasions too.
Il primo negozio
This is me at the door of my first shop. A tiny space, that was soon filled with an incredible quantity of objects: pens, nibs, inks, papers of all kinds, and also small gift items and even normal stationery products. For a while I also sold another kind of almost antique objects: slide rules. Many today don't even know what those rulers were, but suffice it to say that in the first space adventures they were regularly employed by engineers to make even the most complicated calculations. Today, of course, computers are used. Below are some photos of these mysterious (so to speak) objects.
Piccoli negozi crescono
After about two years from the opening, premises a door away from mine was vacated (a butcher's shop): it was much more spacious than mine! I made a deal with the owners and secured this new environment. Since the Christmas period was near, I thought it was not the time for a move, so in the new window I set up a huge nativity scene and various Christmas decorations. In the new shop I used what was the room-refrigerator (obviously adequately cleaned and repainted) to store the pens and the back room for the rest of the goods. It was certainly a shop with a peculiar personality!
As already mentioned, a good part of the nibs I sold were of British origin, where the first nib factories arose at the end of
the 1700s, mainly in Birmigham. This tiny but revolutionary invention marked the transition from the "old" quill to the more
durable and practical steel nib. Production in the 19th century rose to unthinkable figures: millions of nibs came out of the
Birmingham factories every month. Part of the work was done by hand, and some of the machinery can still be seen in
Birmingham's "Pen Museum". Of course, things changed again with the
advent of ballpoint pens, relegating the use of nibs to the calligraphy community alone. Today these factories produce
only a small part of nibs and have differentiated their productions to remain active. Two of the most well-known brands
of nibs, "Mitchell" and
"Leonardt", still offer a fairly wide range of nibs
and calligraphy fountain pens and markers.
Another brand, also very popular with calligraphers all over the world, is the German "Brause".
Finally, there is the American "Speedball". These are some examples of nibs:
"Elbow" nib, for Copperplate (Mitchell)
Drawing range of nibs
"Round Hand" Nibs
Classic 'Leaf Nib"
Visconti - Divina Commedia
Alongside the ancient writing instruments, my offer also extended to the most famous brands of contemporary pens: first of all the Florentine Visconti, then led by my friend Luigi Poli, tireless creator of new models. Some more for collection rather than for everyday use. One of my favorites, needless to say, was the "Divine Comedy", for which I executed the writing on the elegant packaging.
Delta - Wè Smorfia
Among other brands, Delta, with the characteristic "Dolce Vita" series in orange and black. Another of their pens that had a great success was the "Wè Smorfia": ingeniously screwed into the 'clip' it had a tiny coral good luck horn. Delta also created a series of ethnic collectible pens: dedicated to the Maori, the Tuareg, etc ... A very particular (and very expensive!) pen was the 'Pompei'.
Other brands were: Pelikan, Parker, Waterman and the unmistakable "Giuliano Mazzoli" of Vallina (FI). Mazzoli's most
characteristic pen was the "Moka": a pen in the shape of the famous coffee pot. For a time I also kept the elegant Conway Stewart,
especially the one dedicated to Winston Churchill. Among other brands, even the classic "OMAS".
So I had a wide range of fountain pens, rollerballs and ballpoint pens of all types and prices on display and I think I have satisfied a good number of customers.
Comparing a slide rule to a computer may seem like a paradox, yet since the 17th century, slide rules were used for more complex
calculations until the early 1970s, when the first electronic pocket calculators were available. Even in early space flights,
including the lunar landing, astronauts used a ruler for the calculations required during space missions.
There were numerous variations specific to the different sectors, for example: for reinforced concrete, for electricity, for trade.
Almost all of them relied on a 'fixed' scale, a movable ruler, and a transparent movable cursor that allowed you to precisely align values on the various scales.
It certainly took a lot of expertise to properly use a slide rule. Also, you had to have a good idea of the order of magnitude at play. A good engineer could not fail to have a deep familiarity with the slide rule. Some were produced in a conveniently pocket size. They did not require the use of batteries and, if treated with care, lasted a lifetime.
Below are photos of some of the slide rules I had for sale in my shop:
For concrete - Front
For concrete - Back
Mod. 645 - For commerce
Mod. 650 - For electricity
A partnership that lasted for many years was the one with Salvatore Ferragamo, during which the always elegant invitations for events,
fashion shows and dinners were personalized with my Cancelleresca (Italic) style writing. More than once, in order to be in closer
contact with those responsible for the events, especially in the last hours when corrections of names or addresses were necessary,
I carried out my work in the prestigious rooms of Palazzo Feroni. I think I wrote, over the long period of collaboration, several tens
of thousands of addresses!
Another important client, Benetton, summoned me to the Treviso office to fill in the invitations for the 40th anniversary celebration, which later take place in Paris. Times were tight and the invitations (5 for each envelope to be addressed, were about 5000. I invited two colleagues and we completed everything in about 4 days. A second occasion was later, in Milan, for a dinner in honor of Al Gore. In this case I was asked to write the placeholders.
Other Clients in the fashion sector were Gucci, Stefano Ricci and Bottega Veneta.
The European University Institute for degree diplomas, the "Osservatorio Permanente Giovani-Editori" for their invitations,
and many others. Finally, the many customers - too many to list! - for wedding invitations, scrolls, business cards, poems and
even ... love letters! All strictly handwritten.
All things, even the most beautiful, have an end. So also for my shop.
In 2008 I had to make a serious decision. The hand-writing work took me to the point that, after spending 8/10 hours in the shop, I would go home and write - sometimes even all night. I couldn't keep such a rythm for long, nor could I afford to hire staff for the store. So, very reluctantly, I made a sale at the end of business and pulled down the shutter of my physical store: he online sales of nibs and the like, through the web pages, continued for some time, but then I closed that too.
Until mid-2014 I continued with the activity of writing, gradually reducing commitments and passing on to two past pupils,
Isabella Leone and Laura Mazzetti, the several requests that still arrived. While Isabella was
then hired as a teacher in a school in Lucca, Laura was very good at continuing in this sector, both replacing me in the work
for Ferragamo, as well as in the field of weddings and has had and still has great success and has received several awards.
My having 'passed the pen' to Laura fills me with satisfaction, because it gives a sense of continuity to what I started in 2000.