After its umpteenth and final reconstruction since it was built in the mid-10th century, the Church of Santa Maria Mater Domini in Venice in 1551 welcomed within its walls a scuola, a uniquely Venetian school or confraternity of laymen that promoted the Christian faith and good deeds as well as works of art and culture. The Scuola della Santissima Croce, or School of the Most Holy Cross, commissioned the young son of a dyer to paint a religious picture, “Invention of the Cross”.
The young artist, Jacopo Comin (also known as Jacopo Robusti) passed into history as Tintoretto, “little dyer” or “dyer’s boy.” And the painting that hangs today at the church conveys, with its sublime Venetian settings and characters, the mystery of life and death that sums up the essence of religion.
Yet what captured your correspondent’s eye was a bearded man on the right side of the canvass, leaning forward to hand in a metallic tool, presumably to use on the cross. That man was astonishingly familiar to him, to his companion and to every Venetian he showed the photo to. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Franco Filippi, of a storied Venetian family of book sellers. But while other Filippis continue their ancestral business in their store, Franco has decided to give a new lease of life to old books, usually those that are being discarded after a city resident passes away and their relatives summon him to come and pick up those books. He usually spreads them on a blanket on the floor at Campo San Barnaba or Campo San Basegio.
The resemblance is so uncanny that photos do not do it justice. Anyone who has seen Franco, popularly known as Franco Libri, and the character in the Tintoretto painting from five centuries before, will recognize the gentle look in the eye and the sense of tragedy of those who know —or, rather, feel— too much. It’s hard to see Franco without a glass of spritz al campari in his hand, and harder to part from him without having a meaningful, rich, funny conversation before. He will tell you that Matthew was a true journalist, for his gospel was a reporter’s account of the revolution Christ brought about, or will share anecdotes from his month-long trip through the Venetian islands on his brother’s boat.
And maybe in a previous life five centuries before he was a good man too, who knew too much, whom Tintoretto had posing for him, helping create the cross. The Church tells us that Christ died on it, but that he did it to redeem us all. More modestly, Franco today sells us old books for 1 euro or the cost of a spritz. He is passing them along from those who leave us, allowing us to read those lines read or unread before, which remind us that we are not alone and that, one way or the other, we will be reborn. In our children, in our love, or in our books.