Obituary: Carlo Alberto Chiesa

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The Independent Online
MILAN is a businesslike city; its streets do not encourage you to dally. But, as in other Italian cities, facades conceal graceful courtyards or, beyond, hidden gardens. 11 Via Bigli is like this, except that on the far side of its courtyard the door gives on to, first, an anteroom featuring a large wooden architectural model of a Renaissance cupola and with beautiful documents framed on the walls, and then a large room shelved on three sides, and dominated by a long high table, strewn with books, carefully chosen to catch your eye or taste, and other objects, some exquisitely made of glass.

This, for more than 40 years, was the "Studio" of Carlo Alberto Chiesa, for almost as long one of the dominant figures in the European old book trade. He was born in 1926, the son of Pietro Chiesa, who was a famous designer of glass (hence the pieces on the table), a commanding figure in the applied arts and founder of the "Fontana Arte" group. He was also a great collector of everything except books, and his son inherited his connoisseur's eye.

Growing up in the Second World War, a law student just after it, Chiesa found his vocation at Paris, whither he went in 1949. He haunted the Parisian bookshops, notably that of Marc Loliee, who became his friend and mentor. He earned the respect of the legendary Galanti, then in his apartment in Montmartre, where every piece of furniture, even the bath, useless since there was nothing to heat the water, was full of books. Chiesa had an intuitive sense of the importance and tactile qualities of books, so much so that he could buy a book in one shop and sell it on to another, making a profit on what he could see and others had missed.

In 1953 he returned home to Milan, first to the Piazza Sant' Erasmo, and then in 1956 to the Via Bigli. It was never, in any ordinary sense, a shop. As in Paris, his idea was to find the books he liked and then to put them in the hands of those who would appreciate them as much as he did. His discretion, equally, was complete; without concealing his customers' identity, he never discussed their affairs or interests unless required to do so. But no major buyer could afford to ignore him, since his grasp of the market, not only for Italian books of all periods (though that was his staple) but any fine book, was powerful.

If private collectors benefited most from his taste and ability, he also admired the great public collections. As a loyal Milanese, the Biblioteca Ambrosiana had first call on his expertise, and successive Prefects owed much to his help. The late Franklin D. Murphy esteemed him, and the wonderful library of early Italian books that bears Murphy's name at the University of California at Los Angeles owes much to Chiesa's wise counsel.

Since the late 1950s and the Dyson Perrins sales, Chiesa was a notable presence at almost every important sale, although he disliked publicity and preferred to buy as well as sell privately. But Christie's sale of the Feltrinelli collection two months ago was a challenge he could not refuse; though mortally ill, he triumphed once again.

Chiesa did not deal just in grand books; he could see the delight of quiet humble ephemera. It was the same with people; he was hospitable to all, though his first love was for his wife and family, with whom he went climbing in the Dolomites every year.

Nicolas Barker

Carlo Alberto Chiesa, bookseller: born Milan 17 September 1926; married 1961 Elena de Hierschel de' Minerbi (four sons); died Milan 25 January 1998.

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