By ELISABETTA POVOLEDO
The New York Times
Published: May 31, 2008
BOLOGNA, Italy — The gala presentation of “Michelangelo: La Dotta Mano” (“Michelangelo: The Wise Hand”), a volume of photographs of this Renaissance master’s sculptures, may well have been the most lavish book debut in history.
A photograph of Michelangelo’s “Pietà” by Aurelio Amendola from the art book “Michelangelo: La Dotta Mano.” More Photos »
‘Michelangelo: La Dotta Mano’
With Piazza Maggiore, Bologna’s main square, as the backdrop, a short video depiction of the volume, which can be seen on http://www.fmronline.it/, was followed on Thursday night by an hourlong spectacle that included dozens of costumed dancers, a string quartet playing from a stage suspended in midair, suckling pigs roasted over a pit, a fake snowfall and a foppishly dressed acrobat walking Spiderman-style up the facade of San Petronio, the city’s cathedral.
But then, this is no ordinary book, starting with its retail price of 100,000 euros, or around $155,000, at Friday’s exchange rate.
Included in the price of what its publishers are calling “the most beautiful book in the world” is a sleek black case, its own stand and a 500-year guarantee.
“This isn’t an appliance,” Marilena Ferrari, chairman of the book’s publisher, Gruppo FMR, told Bologna’s mayor and guests at the book’s official presentation in a grand salon in City Hall on Thursday morning. “That’s the amount of time we feel we can guarantee the materials we used to craft it.”
Using the high standards of the privately published books in the 19th century — an ideal known as the “book beautiful” — as a starting point, FMR sought expert artisans from various fields to create something Ms. Ferrari described as “a work of art in itself.”
Aurelio Amendola’s black-and-white photographs were printed on paper made exclusively for the project. There are detachable reproductions of Michelangelo drawings on handmade folios created according to centuries-old traditions. And then there’s the cover: a scale reproduction in marble of the “Madonna della Scala” (“Madonna of the Steps”), a bas-relief of the Virgin and Child sculptured by Michelangelo when he was still in his teens. The original is housed in the Casa Buonarroti in Florence.
It took two white-gloved attendants to lug around the 46.2-pound book at its City Hall debut.
The marble cover was the trickiest aspect of production.
“It was difficult to find the right depth,” said Nanni Tamar, the project’s production manager. Six sculptors of marble are working on the first 33 copies in a limited edition of 99. “We broke a lot of slabs along the way,” Mr. Tamar said.
This isn’t the most expensive book ever made. There are books incorporating precious metals or gemstones that increase the price, like that of the entrepreneur Roger Shashoua, whose memoir, “Dancing With the Bear,” according to its Web site, dancingwiththebear.com, comes in a diamond-encrusted “special oligarch” edition that ranges in price from $1 million to $6 million.
Luxury publishing in general seems to be on the upswing. “From my experience, it’s growing,” said Ovais Naqvi, chief executive of Gloria, a new luxury publisher that this year came out with a book about New York City that sells at $2,500 to $15,000.
“There are a certain amount of people who are testing how far the market can be pushed,” Mr. Naqvi said.
Because production of the Michelangelo book is so labor-intensive (Ms. Ferrari likened the process to a Renaissance workshop), aspiring buyers can expect a six-month wait, the same as for a Ferrari (the car), said Pietro Tomassini, FMR’s commercial director.
“We think it will sell out in a very short time,” he said. Customers in the United States, Europe and Russia have already reserved copies, he added, though he declined to say how many.
Cristiano Collari, the book specialist for Christie’s auction house in Milan, was a little taken aback by the price, which he said was comparable to that of good copies of rare ancient texts like the “Hypnerotomachia Poliphili” (1499), which he described as the “bibliophile’s prime fetish.” But even contemporary art books can turn out to be good investments, Mr. Collari said, though the market is always hard to predict.
For this first title in its “Book Wonderful” series — apart from a forthcoming book about Catherine de Medici, the rest are top secret — FMR chose to pay homage to Michelangelo and to time its publication to coincide with the 500th anniversary of the first painted stroke on the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the Vatican, which took place in May 1508.
The question remains, who would pay so much for such a book?
Franco Negretto, a financial consultant here who was awed by Thursday night’s spectacle — “I’ve seen a lot of shows in this square, but this was one of the best” — said he’d been sold by FMR’s pitch, despite the price tag.
“I’ll do everything I can to buy it,” he said solemnly.