Filippo grew up surrounded by books and now he runs a bookshop which he took over from his father. The joy of reading is a tradition that has been handed down through generations, as has the pleasure of smoking a pipe. Indeed, it could be said that the two activities are quite closely connected. Filippo firmly believes that there is nothing better than a satisfying smoke when sitting down to start a good book. He can detect the scent of sweet tobacco in the pages of old books that belonged to his father and before that to his grandfather. He also loves the smell of old books. When he browses through the second-hand book stalls, the first thing he does is to open the book and breathe in its scent, the scent of pages well-thumbed by generations of real men and women who savoured the stories contained within, people who have left traces of their real lives within the imaginary lives of the characters.
His love for literature and pipes is on a par with his affection for his home city, which is Milan. He has always been firmly convinced that they all share something, namely an elegant but veiled exhibition of discretion. This is true for Milan and its beauty that is never flaunted, but rather hidden in the courtyards of the turn- of- the- century historic buildings, as it is also true for the pipe and its intimate, private aspect when dedicating a portion of time to oneself. This also goes for a book whose characters merge with the reader to the extent that they begin to live within the reader’s mind, and the reader strikes up conversations with them.
One day in early February, for an instant pipes, books and Milan fuse together into a single image before his eyes, setting off an interesting train of thought that goes back in time.
Knowing that Filippo has a passion for old books, attic cleaners frequently stop by his shop. Whether for love or money, these attic cleaners spend their time clearing out attics, and while rummaging through all the junk they hope to come across some buried treasure, such as an unpublished manuscript or a long lost book with the author’s dedication on the flyleaf. That particular morning an attic cleaner comes in hauling behind him a trunk full of old tomes. An assortment of books on trigonometry, etiquette and good manners, an old Bible, a medical handbook, the Divine Comedy, and even a 1906 edition of the cookbook, The Art of Eating Well by Pellegrino Artusi (http://www.casartusi.it/it/content/il-libro). They are rather dated, but still in good condition. Why not buy them, thinks Filippo. So he does, and during his lunch break he goes to the room at the back of the shop, closes the door , settles down in his armchair and lights his pipe, ready to savour the pages of his recent acquisitions and the lives of the previous owners. It is in the very book by Artusi that something incredible happens. Pressed between the pages is a fragment of suspended time: an admission ticket for the Milan Universal Exposition in 1906. A perfectly preserved piece of paper that is about to transport Filippo’s mind back through space and time.
He has just taken a puff on his pipe and the smoke is clearing when he finds himself taken back to one afternoon in June, 1906 on the train that connects Piazza d’Armi to Parco Sempione. He has paid 10 cents and the four carriages hold around 200 passengers. The women clutch handkerchiefs or fans, and the men, pipes or sometimes walking sticks. This elevated railway, with trains leaving every three minutes carrying tens of thousands of visitors daily, has also become part of the exhibition. Indeed, the Exposition’s theme is Transport and this embryonic prototype of the underground offers in a way a showcase of modern Italian industry. There are 35 countries from across the globe and 35,000 exhibitors, and Filippo is glad to see that Milan is showing itself at its best to the millions of visitors who will be arriving during the next few months. It is a Milan mirrored in its various canals, which according to Stendhal was even more beautiful than Venice. It is also the Milan where only a few years earlier Via Manzoni and the surrounding streets had been covered in straw to muffle the sound of horse hooves, so as not to disturb the last days of Giuseppe Verdi (http://www.milanofree.it/milano/storia/giuseppe_verdi.html). Now for a few months it is the Milan that displays technological and scientific discoveries of turn-of-the-century progressive positivism, before the Great War shatters that dream. In Piazza d’Armi hot air balloons are being launched. Indeed, the most popular pavilion is the one on Aviation, which is not surprising considering the exploits of the Wright brothers a few years earlier. Moreover, Italy would soon also trace its genius from Lombardy in the sky, that “ true Lombard sky, so beautiful when it is beautiful—so brilliant, so calm”, as described by Manzoni, in the shape of Gianni Caproni (http://cronologia.leonardo.it/storia/biografie/caproni.htm), a young engineer from Trento whose meeting with one of the Wright brothers during a conference in Liege would inspire him to design and fly planes. Thus, on 27th May, 1910, at a farm in Malpensa in the semi-desert area of Gallarate, a test flight would be carried out of the biplane designed and built by Caproni himself, which would be the beginning of what would become the busiest airport in Northern Italy. This is another reason why Milan is fascinating, thinks Filippo, while he looks up at an airship. Here intuitions take shape, and Italy is certainly full of ideas. There is also a pavilion dedicated to Deep-Sea Diving, as Italy is one of the countries to excel in this activity. This would be confirmed in 1930, when the British asked the Italians to recover the wreck of an ocean liner, the SS Egypt, off the coast of Brest, as there was a valuable cargo of gold on board. Where all others had failed, the deep-sea divers from Viarreggio on the Artiglio (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K8en6aFnogg) were brilliantly successful, not only identifying the wreck of the Egypt at a depth of 130 metres, but also managing to retrieve the cargo of tons of gold and silver, an extraordinary feat by any standard. Filippo knows that the Italians always manage in the end, as they are full of resources. While he strolls along the streets of his ultra-international Milan at the dawn of a new century, he also recalls the Nobel prizes which have just been awarded by the Swedish Academy to no less than two of his fellow countrymen: Giosuè Carducci for Literature, and Camillo Golgi for Medicine. What a lot of positive energy can emerge if cultivated.
It is now lunch time, and Filippo must grab a bite. He decides to try the mechanical restaurant, another new experiment in this Universal Exposition, a cross between self-service and vending machine. The leaflet boasts “no tip, swift service, no wasting time calling waiters. Highly convenient for practical people and businessmen”. A real wonder for a city that would become the heart of the business world and is already busy, although not so frenetic. While he looks for 1.75 lire in his wallet, the price of a hot meal and wine, he feels something vibrating in his jacket pocket.
It is his mobile phone which wakes him up and brings him instantly back to his bookshop in 2015, with the book by Artusi spread open on his lap and the Art Nouveau illustration on the ticket to the Universal Exposition in 1906 peeking out. Although his pipe has gone out, the pleasant sensations of his brief trip have remained. Expo 2015 is just around the corner and the theme that has been chosen is Feeding the Planet. What better way to be launched into the past than through the greatest cookbook ever written! The canals in Milan have now been covered over with asphalt and so Milan is no longer a city on water. Nevertheless, it is still fascinating for those who can listen to it and discover its treasures. Its beauty is not paraded like in other Italian cities, but rather it is discreet. You have to approach the city gradually, take time to get to know it, and open up the hearts of the historical buildings as well as of its citizens. Once you have succeeded, Milan becomes a city where you can happily smoke your pipe in silence with no need to do anything else. Filippo lights up his pipe again and thinks that his father and his father’s father went to the same shop as he does to buy a pipe. A shop, like that ticket, which is a fragment of suspended time in a street in Milan where everything around it has changed. Yet, it continues to be a universal exposition of elegant discretion. Incidentally, Al Pascià has existed since 1906.