Paolo Olbi, Venice’s Master of Paper, Printing and Bookbinding

Paolo Olbi, Venice’s Master of Paper, Printing and Bookbinding

Bookbinder Paolo Olbi, and his typesetter Beppi, may be Venice’s last great artisans, making every component of their beautiful products  by hand in Paolo’s atmospheric workshop in Castello.

I first stumbled across one of Paolo’s shops on Campo Santa Maria Nova by accident and was immediately smitten by the leather-bound notebooks in the window with their fine leather ties.

This shop was closed, so I noted down his other shop on Calle della Mandola to see if I could find the source of these exquisite, traditional-inspired paper-products: note pads, address books, photo albums, stationery, and business cards.

There, Paolo was at work in the back room, embossing patterns into the leather covers of small notebooks, while his wife manned the counter out front, chatting to staff. She was busy and he was occupied, so I chose a few gifts while I waited.

A group of 20-ish Americans trooped in. One of the guys began thumbing through the notepads, apparently determined to buy one despite his friends’ bewildering attempts to put him off. “Don’t you think they’re, like, old-fashioned?” “Why don’t you get a Moleskin instead?” “They’re expensive, aren’t they? How do you know they won’t fall apart?” “How do you even know they’re made in Venice?”

Resisting the urge to thump the whiney young woman, I interrupted: “They’re cheaper than Moleskins, these won’t fall apart, their limited editions, and the man you see out back is making them by hand, so I think they might be made in Venice.”

“What do you use them for?” she asked in response. The young guy, ignoring his friend, took a few notebooks to the counter. Paolo’s wife looked appreciative.

When I showed an interest in what Paolo was doing and explained what Terence and I were doing in Venice, he invited us to visit him at his workshop the next day. There, Paolo and Beppi – with the wonderful help of his friend Paolo Lucidi, a glassmaker and artist, who translated for us – spent a couple of hours taking us through the printing and bookbinding process.

Paolo showed us how they create wood plates of the patterns for the book-covers, inspired by old Venetian designs and typesetting (Beppi’s role) by hand using old plates and type (which Terence, a book designer/publishing manager in a former life was thrilled to see), to binding the books 100% by hand.

Paolo made us a sample cover while we were there – it takes him one hour to make a small notebook when all the pieces are prepared, while it takes him about five hours to make a photo album. He also shared with us a personal project he’s been working on for some time, a splendid one-off book on Venice’s palazzi, his ‘dream job’ he says.

Over a glass of vino at a local bar around the corner Paolo tells us: “I love my job. I’m the only one around doing this. I’ll never retire.”

Paolo is happy to welcome visitors to his workshop. He wants people to appreciate the traditional artisanal process and the value of his products. He is also keen to collaborate on book projects. Just call into one of his shops when you’re in Venice and make a time. Also make sure you buy one of his notebooks. Trust me, you’ll never use another Moleskin again.

Paolo Olbi
Campo Santa Maria Nuova 6061; 041 523 7655

There are 32 comments

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  1. Jen Laceda

    I LOVE this kind of old world artistry / craftsmanship. I wish I knew of his store when I was in Venice. A book designer and publisher in a former life? What CAN’T Terry do?

  2. Leverne

    Having just finished the second book in Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart series (Inkspell) ,where books and book binding is celebrated in a fantasy setting, it is wonderful to meet a real life bookbinder. Will absolutely visit next time in Venice! ( Meggie and Mo from Inkheart would have approved…)

  3. Lara Dunston

    It’s okay, Jen. We know what you mean. Yes, he’s a man of many talents!

    So is Paolo – it was extraordinary watching him make a photo album from scratch, I tell you! I’d love to learn that stuff… but unfortunately not enough time, so I was satisfying watching. Wonderful! I just hope he can find young people to train in this, which is what he’d love to do.

  4. Lara Dunston

    We’ll have to look that book up. Next time you’re in Venice, please do take a print out of this story to Paolo if you wouldn’t mind. And ask to see his workshop. I know he won’t mind showing you.

  5. John Ridyard

    We met Paolo and his wife in the small shop on 24th July 2010 – he told me he has young students – and I am sure they will have wonderful tuition – he is such a friendly guy.
    He inspired me to complete a special project I started a few years ago – knowing that if it doesn’t work out as beautiful as I might wish – I can always send the ‘signatures’ out to Paolo for him to encase into one of his super leather bindings.

  6. Terence Carter

    Hi John, thanks for your comment, yes Paolo is a gentle soul, isn’t he?
    It’s a shame you didn’t get to see the wonderful pen and ink book he’s working on full of illustrations of the most beautiful buildings of Venice.
    That was incredibly inspiring to me as someone who used to design books for a living. I do hope it doesn’t die out.

  7. Risamay

    Lovely post.

    I’ve never had the pleasure of meeting Paolo, but I did have several nice chats with his (I believe it was) sister.

    Did you visit the shop of or have the opportunity to meet Alberto Valese while you were in Venice? He makes hand-marbled papers and hand-bound books, too.

  8. Risamay

    Ah, thank you. Okay. His wife. I don’t know how I got it in my head that she was his sister. At any rate, had to pop back again to look at these wonderful photos. I just love Paolo’s work and (always) miss Venice, so much.

  9. Lynsey

    I’ve just come back from Venice, and I had the pleasure of meeting Paolo while I was there. He has just the one shop now, outside the university, and it took me a while to find him but oh, it was worth it. I bought one of his diaries and it’s so, so beautiful.

    He had a bowl of sweets on his workbench and offered me one on the way out, which made me smile. I don’t intend to leave it too long before returning to Venice and I’ll certainly be going back to Paolo’s shop.

  10. Lara Dunston

    Hello Lynsey – I’m so pleased you met Paolo and loved his beautiful things. Aren’t they wonderful? Thanks for letting us know that he’s closed the other shop. I’ll have to email him. We have been missing Venice terribly actually. Molto grazie for your visit! x

  11. Savannah

    I am so glad I came across this post! I am going to Venice this fall, so I will make sure to stop in. Paolo’s items sound just delightful.

  12. Emma

    Hi just to save you the long walk I just did, the shop changed 3 years ago, no longer sells this work and is now a hat shop

  13. Lara Dunston

    Hi Emma – Paolo still has the Campo Santa Maria Nuova shop, as well as the workshop. He and his wife are getting on and getting tired, so they had to close the Mandola shop. No walk in Venice is too long to do! I find every lane and alley on the island an absolute delight to wander, don’t you? Thanks for dropping by!

  14. Allison

    Just a quick update for finding his shop as I have just returned from Venice and spend some time finding shops which have since closed!

    I was able to find Paolo at Ponte Ca’ Foscari 3253 – Dorsoduro 30123. I’m unsure if there are any other locations, and his website seems not to have been updated the addresses/locations in a while.

  15. Lara Dunston

    Thanks, Allison! Much appreciated. That must be a new shop – sounds like he’s closed the other two. I’ve emailed a Venetian friend and asked her to call him and confirm. Thanks for stopping by!

  16. Julie

    I’ve been there and LOVE LOVE LOVED it…..his work is amazing and it’s a real honor to see it. Thanks so much for sharing this kind of work. BTW, is there a way to share this article and images via email? My parents don’t have twitter or FB. Thanks again! — Julie

  17. Em

    We stumbled across his shop while getting lost in Venice; beautiful place, (well, all of Venice was magic) and warm, inviting people inside. It’s a treasure. An absolute treasure.

  18. Lara Dunston

    Hello Em – so pleased you found Paolo Olbi’s shop and loved it. Were Paolo and his wife still there? I heard one report that someone younger was running the shop now. And another report that both shops were now closed. But I haven’t had a chance to follow up with our Venetian friends. I’ll try and do that soon. Thanks for dropping by!

  19. Amber

    Lara, were you able to find out anything regarding the current status of Paolo’s shops? I haven’t been there in years now, and I am so curious if he is still working… Would love to go back soon and visit his workshop in Castello if he still maintains it as well. He wrote the address on a bookmark and gave it to me when I was there last, but I didn’t have a chance to go!

  20. Lara Dunston

    Hi Amber, I heard from a reader recently who said she did go to one of Paolo’s shops and bought some beautiful gifts but she couldn’t remember which one. I have a friend heading to Venice in a few days so I’ll ask her to investigate and then I’ll update this page.

  21. Carrie

    I was just at Paolo’s shop at Dorsoduro 30123 the first week of May. Paolo himself was there working away and we bought some lovely souvenirs. Wish we could have chatted with him but the language barrier prevented it. Had to make due with gestures and smiles. So yes, he is very much still in business!

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