Logo The Fabulist

Palazzo Roberti

Photograph of busy bookstore named Palazzo Roberti, from above
  • By Chiara Barzini
  • Issue 8
  • Shelf Life

The writer Francesca Marciano was the first person to tell me about the Manfrotto family and Palazzo Roberti, a bookstore in the historic center of Bassano del Grappa, a city in the Vicenza province of northern Italy that is known as the home of digestivo grappa. Bassano has been the site of conflict since the French revolutionary wars. Thousands of soldiers died on Mount Grappa during the First World War and, after Italy’s Armistice with the Allies during the Second, the city was invaded by German troops who deported or killed many of its inhabitants. Today, bullet holes still pepper the dilapidated mansions and buildings that line the Brenta river banks, all of them seemingly forgotten or turned into museums nobody visits. But the city’s libertine spirit also made it an inspiration to writers John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Ernest Hemingway, who, as an ambulance driver, wrote in a letter to the art historian Bernard Berenson, “I’ll leave my heart here.” And, as I discovered on a stroll, my great-grandfather, a writer and war correspondent for the Corriere della Sera, spent enough time around the town to have a plaque in the library piazza dedicated to him.

The Palazzo Roberti, which was built in 1663, hosted the sculptor Antonio Canova and the physicist Giovanni Poleni, and the countess and poet Francesca Roberti held literary salons here. When I arrived at the store, I was greeted by the three charismatic Manfrotto sisters: Lorenza, who swung open the front doors; Veronica, who came running down the stairs from the frescoed room on the top floor; and Lavinia, who popped up from a stash of classics behind the counter. All three were accompanied by children, who quickly scattered to rummage through ancient volumes of poetry, tiptoe around the glass cases of rare bound covers, and play catch between the balcony and the grand piano.

The sisters told their story in relay—beginning with their father, Lino, a photojournalist who created lightweight photography equipment in the 1960s. “When we were kids,” Veronica explained, “he entrusted us daughters to work on the manual production of stands, booms, and clamps.”

“He devised the perfect family assembly line,” Lorenza chimed in. “A great business. Each sister had a specific duty and, piece by piece, we put together the whole. Chains, bolts, and screws were our daily bread.”

By the mid-1970s, the Manfrotto tripod had become a staple in photo studios around world. Lino purchased the historic Palazzo Roberti in the mid-1990s—and, after he signed the papers, discovered a legal glitch: nobody could live there. Unfazed, he decided to turn the building into a bookstore, which opened in 1998.

Today, the Palazzo offers readings, themed afternoon teas, art shows, and soirées. Lines of people crowd the sidewalk waiting for the doors to open each morning. The sisters host dinners in their homes for their visiting authors and raise one another’s children. They attribute their success to the work ethic imposed by their parents. They still pay rent to their father each month, and describe their “indefatigable” mother as their role model.

“She’s fixing olive nets as we speak,” said Lavinia.

“Remember those Sunday morning wake up calls?” said Lorenza, interrupting, rolling her eyes.

After the sisters discussed the menu for dinner—scallops and artichokes, pumpkin and ginger purée, sour cream and scallions—the children led me to their favorite area of the store, where I picked up a copy of Mario Ramos’ Off to Bed, Little Monster! The book has done miracles for my son’s—and consequently my own—sleeping habits, while the bookstore cheers those of us who’ll spend hours tucked into a nook smelling of oak—where Napoleon, incidentally, is rumored to have taken his naps.

Chiara Barzini is a screen and fiction writer living in Rome.

Photos by the author