If you’ve spent more than a few days in Rome you’ll probably have left the traffic of Largo Argentina behind you and paused by the turtle fountain in Piazza Mattei and thought, for a moment, how wonderful it must be to live there and wondered how that might be possible, and smiled to yourself. You might have taken out your drawing stuff and sketched the way the boys reach up to guide the turtles towards the water, the turtles already free of the guiding hand. After which, on your way to the heart of the Ghetto along Via della Reginella, assuming – as I do – that you’re book-lovers, you’ll have paused a few dozen yards away, outside a bookshop to see what its trestle table has to offer. Usually, it’s a rum bunch of history books, fiction, a sprinkling of philosophy, mostly, but not entirely Italian. You may have decided to see what else the bookshop has to offer and wandered in. If you’ve bought anything, which is likely – because you can’t resist – you’ll have met the bookshop’s owner, Giuseppe Casetti, a tallish, slim man with long off-white hair and a slightly guru-ish air about him.
Casetti’s a character. He’s been kicking around Rome for decades in one form or another, usually, though not only, as a bookseller. He’s an anarchic sort of figure, linked to a series of artists, and movements, and events, and organisations. He was a friend of Frances Woodman, the American photographer, who killed herself when she was 23, when he called himself not Giuseppe, but Cristiano; he’s half-poseur, half-benefactor, poised between nostalgie de la boue and an eye for the main chance. He’s dabbled in politics, and the art world, and made friends and enemies as people do. He’s not as pure, or as radical, as he imagines himself to be – he’s sentimental, for one thing, about the working class, and vain: I saw him at a Patti Smith concert some years ago in the Roman arena of Ostia Antica, swanning before the stage in a long white robe – but these are venial faults.
And now he’s in big trouble. Some years ago, he bought a bundle of moulding photographs from one of the people he buys stuff from; photographs that, apparently, had been thrown away by the police, dating back to the 50s and 60s. All kinds of stuff: mug shots, booty. He sat on them for years, finally deciding to organise a show in the space next to his bookshop, the ironically-named Museo del Louvre. He called on an old friend, Achille Bonito Oliva, to write the catalogue. Bonito Oliva, logorrheic as ever, obliged, citing Warhol and Nam June Paik. The show was set to hit the road two days ago. An article appeared in la Repubblica to pave the way.
It paved the way for someone from the Ministry of Fine Arts and, hot on his heels, the police. The photographs have been seized, along with Casetti’s computer and papers of all kinds. His entire stock has been confiscated, the shelves stripped, searches conducted behind them, as though the bookshop were owned by Al Qaida. Casetti is being treated like a criminal, interrogated, demeaned. I imagine that at some point they’ll be taking his photograph, full face and profile. He’s become the unwilling centre of his own show.
Casetti’s not worth the effort the police appear to be putting into this case. It’s as though some nerve has been touched. Official carelessness perhaps. Casetti’s past as a flip-flopping fellow-traveller of the left. Culture, the great pretender, to which one responds with a gun. Bonito Oliva, convinced of the centrality of art and of his own centrality within it, sniffs a rat. He’s going to be ‘writing something about it.’ In the meantime, a bookseller who has done nobody any serious harm, whose endeavour to keep alive an ember of modernism in a resolutely post-modern world is touchingly heroic, finds himself in a bookshop without a book.