How to build a successful literary festival

«Give yourself a round of applause for the affection you show us». Luca Nicolini is a bookseller in Mantua. He wears a pair of beige trousers and a dark polo shirt, and as soon as he says those words to the microphone, the public in Piazza Leon Battista Alberti returns the roaring noise of esteem for what he represents there, namely the Festivaletteratura organizing committee. The scene of the applause is Wednesday, July 25, shortly after 21. The centre of Mantua is immersed in the wet air of the Afa Padana. Despite the heat, despite being a Wednesday, I can count fourteen rows of fifteen chairs each. An audience of more than two hundred people to add as many standing or sitting on the sidewalks all around. They and Nicolini are there for the annual rite of delivering the program of what everyone in the city simply callsFestival.

They call it that since 1997, from the first edition. Three years earlier, the Region had commissioned Comedia, an English agency, to identify whether and how the smallest provinces of Lombardy could be stimulated by culture. The goals were ambitious. There was the talk of triggering flows of tourism, stimulating entrepreneurship, provoking urban developments, encouraging youth employment. When the British went down to Mantua, they met a series of local interlocutors. They wanted to understand the margins, the critical points, the availability of possible projects addressed on those paths. The final report that Comedia’s consultants had prepared for Mantua proposed a series of interventions, including “making Mantua a centre for cultural congresses”, or “create a quality of life assessment agency in the city”. And then he mentioned Hay-on-Wye, a small town in the Welsh countryside. Not even 5,000 inhabitants and for several years the British capital of the used book.

The idea was “to make Mantova the city of the book”, a book intended as a commercial product. In the county town of Powys it had worked and the local economy, secularly anchored in pastoralism, had blossomed thanks to this new vocation and a density of bookstores per inhabitant without equal in the world. Among all the subjects involved by Comedia in his investigation, there were also Luca Nicolini, in fact, and Marzia Corraini who together with her husband directs an independent publishing house specialized in contemporary art and historically linked to Bruno Munari. At the end of the consulting project, the institutions did not deal with it anymore. Nicolini, Corraini and the other six of today’s organizing committee, on the other hand, understood that there was some good. Set aside the idea of the ​​city of the book, but they understood that from Hay-on-Wye they would import the other thing the town is known for. His famous literary festival.

Festivaletteratura was born like this, as a local solution to an equally local necessity. Its national dimension has conquered it over time, to become the broad scenario that today – data of the 2017 edition, the last – aggregates more than 400 writers, authors, artists from many countries, engage 3,000 volunteers and attracts over 120,000 people from all over Italy. It doesn’t have to sound pretentious than that that same evening in July, in the little square in the shadow of the cathedral of Sant’Andrea, Mattia Palazzi, mayor of the city, received the microphone from Nicolini for a brief greeting, spoke of squares that must be understood as ports and that, like ports, must always remain open. Open to other people’s ideas, discussions, foreigners. Not even a local politician can exempt himself from re-proportioning the horizon of his intervention far beyond the scene of city disputes. As happens in the show, the perception of the distance between the stage and the audience is directly proportional to the fame of those who are on that stage. Thus the growth of the echo of the event – as well as in the remarkable economic activity that each year moves – has gradually overshadowed the behind the scenes. To subvert this logic and not be content with looking at the apparent result, one must enter the rooms of the organizational secretariat. There you can understand how a Festivaletteratura edition is born and what it means to work on it. the perception of the distance between the stage and the audience is directly proportional to the fame of those who are on that stage. Thus the growth of the echo of the event – as well as in the remarkable economic activity that each year moves – has gradually overshadowed the behind the scenes. To subvert this logic and not be content with looking at the apparent result, one must enter the rooms of the organizational secretariat. There you can understand how a Festivaletteratura edition is born and what it means to work on it. the perception of the distance between the stage and the audience is directly proportional to the fame of those who are on that stage. Thus the growth of the echo of the event – as well as in the remarkable economic activity that each year moves – has gradually overshadowed the behind the scenes. To subvert this logic and not be content with looking at the apparent result, one must enter the rooms of the organizational secretariat. There you can understand how a Festivaletteratura edition is born and what it means to work on it. To subvert this logic and not be content with looking at the apparent result, one must enter the rooms of the organizational secretariat. There you can understand how a Festivaletteratura edition is born and what it means to work on it. To subvert this logic and not be content with looking at the apparent result, one must enter the rooms of the organizational secretariat. There you can understand how a Festivaletteratura edition is born and what it means to work on it.

No one notices the front door. It is located on a little beaten sidewalk in Via Castiglioni, in the heart of the historic city centre. The only sign of his presence is a plasticized A4, with the Secretariat Festivaletteratura written in a not too big font. Inside, inside the overflowing bookcases used as walls, the desks of those who actually build the festival are arranged. A team of 8 people at work all year, which from June to mid-August grows to 15 and which in the last three weeks anticipating the event reaches even 40. Among the 8 assiduous, there is also Alessandro Della Casa. First of all, I ask him what all the books he and his colleagues are surrounded by are. “A little of everything, actually. There are programs of past editions and books that send us every year as proposals. They can come from publishers like anyone else. ” The open and free matrix of Festivaletteratura is what has always made it unique in the panorama of cultural festivals. It can afford a total autonomy of choice regarding the topics to be treated and the authors to be invited.

He explains that he is a Festivaletteratura employee and likes him, fifteen colleagues. Among his responsibilities, there is also that of putting together invitations and proposals for the composition of the program. Just to have an order of magnitude, last year the events distributed over five days were 341. An average of 68 every day, from early morning until midnight. «The reports of books and authors to be invited reach us in the most disparate ways. For example from readers and loyalists, from the informal chats that every member of the committee has in the daily life of their profession, or through the reading groups held by some of our consultants during the year. Often it is the same authors who have already passed by here to apply to return or to tell us about books and themes to bring to the festival ». Rationalizing and organizing all that messy amount of input is the main function of the fortnightly meeting involving the entire committee and secretariat, from the end of September to the middle of the following July. “We share information and put it on the table. We say that the aspiration is to reach unanimity on every proposal to be included in the program. We have different peculiarities and each year the program is a faithful expression of all our different souls ».

Here, however, we are not just talking about literature. And one of the many confirmations is Yanis Varoufakis. He will arrive in Piazza Castello with the pretext of speaking around his diary book, to the pages that tell the months of his assignment as Greek Minister of Economy. But since Festivaletteratura is an organism littered with ribs and breaths, it is clear that the meeting with the founder of Diem25 will not be a flat promotion of Adults in the room. A few days before meeting Alessandro I joined the Nautilus, the Mantuan library of Luca Nicolini. I was hoping to find him and ask him if he wanted to answer some questions for this piece. I had not found it. I explained to his colleague that I was looking for materials and that I was also planning a meeting with Della Casa. “Alexander? Then let us tell you all the work that you have done for ReadOn. A very large project. It is a pity that few know that the Festival is also this ». Festivaletteratura is trying more and more to exist even far from its traditional September, even far from the classic vision that we all have. ReadOn is one of the ways to do it.

In the numerous emails that the headmaster of the Haugesund high school, Norwegian fjords, sent to his counterpart of the Agrupamento de Escolas Carlos Gargaté, in Almada, south bank of the Tagus in front of Lisbon, there was always in the copy also Alessandro Della Casa. To the question “What can an Italian cultural festival share with two schools so far away?”, The answer is: “It can share an action plan to create new bridges between adolescents and literature”. “In addition to those two schools, cultural associations and festivals from Spain, Ireland and the United Kingdom are also involved on ReadOn. The project started thanks to European Union funding. We held meetings here in Mantua, in Cork, in Haugesund. The next one will be in Birmingham. We want to understand how Festivaletteratura can reach teenagers.

I ask him why it is not enough to invite authors that boys love. “It is not enough. The format is not suitable for them, they feel alien to it. We must take into account that it is a band of public accustomed to a new use of stories. There is not only the book, such as reading and writing platforms such as Wattpad. In general, they are brought to a much more active interaction than sitting around listening to an author ». So far ReadOn has been a lot of things and among them also “Anthology”, a collection of books that the boys would like to read in antithesis to the scholastic anthologies of the books that the boys should read. Each year a different theme, each year an anthology resulting from the reports of European children. The Italian top ten will be decreed just on Friday 7 September, in the event number 79 of the program reserved for children over 12 and under 18.

Festivaletteratura has many admirers both among the professionals and readers. There are objective reasons with which to motivate its success. Personally, I always thought they were his narrow formula in a few days – from the early afternoon of Wednesday to late Sunday – his geography concentrated in a 15-minute perimeter on foot, the intimate settings of small squares, courtyards, churches and cloisters, UNESCO heritage. Speaking with Alessandro, I discovered that there are also other reasons. «Here the authors love to come because the public is very interested, very involved. It is not easy to find another similar review that has individual paid meetings. The people who come to sit down have taken a long route of reading the program, of choice and finally of purchase. When they arrive they are very aware, they ask questions, they are interested. They have very specific expectations. Then they may not even be satisfied, but the approach is very motivated “. Aiming at the quality of the turnout rather than the quantity, was a won bet. Just as it might seem risky to decide to do without the influence of publishing houses.

The office phone keeps ringing. These are the days before those famous five in September and I have to let them return to attend to the organization. I understand that he is talking to an author to define the arrival and the logistics of the short stay in the city. When he hangs up, I take this opportunity to ask him how much there is in the legends that circulate about authors who have surprisingly turned out to be whimsical rock stars on tour. “Well, there was some episode. However, I guarantee you that they are really exceptions. There are many and many great authors who have passed through here with delightful humanity and availability ». Notable personalities such as the proud Salman Rushdie who in 1997 – the most important name of the then inaugural edition – still struck by Khomeini’s fatwa, he decided to leave the hotel controlled by his escort and flee for an evening walk chased by the Digos agents. “There are many more characters that have impressed us, I guarantee you.”

In the end, I find it possible to talk to Nicolini too. The office is hidden in the basement of its library, behind a door wedged between the sports section and the kitchen section. He only has time for a question. In 2017, for the twenty-year period, they had the short manifesto they had released in the first year reprinted as-is. I ask him if by chance he has a copy. Look for it and find it on the PC. A layout in PowerPoint and a text poised between a declaration of intent and the recruitment of voluntary forces. «[…] We would like to create in the gardens, in the squares, in the bars, in bookstores … many meetings with writers, writers, poets, actors, actresses … and to do this we need a lot of commitment […]». In 1997 he had to explain what they wanted to do, what they wanted to be. Twenty years later did he want to show whether and how much they had remained faithful to that idea? “We simply liked to bring out this memory of ours to which we are very attached”.