Leo S. Olschki (1861-1940), bookdealer

Leo S. Olschki
Leo S. Olschki. Public Domain.

Lev Samuel Olschki was born in Johannisburg, Poland. Like Ulrich Hoepli, he was a precocious learner. According to his autobiography, he was taught how to read and write by his 'erudite typographer' father before his fifth birthday. When he started secondary school, he had already learned French, Latin and Greek.  In 1881, he was engaged as an apprentice in S. Calvary and Co., a bookshop in Berlin, rapidly raising to assistant. However, because of health problems, he decided to move to Italy, and in 1883 he obtained a job in the Münsterche Antiquariat, an antiquarian bookshop in Verona.

His biography recalls how a 'new horizon' was then opened to young Lev: he became familiar with antique books and studied their history 'with fervour'. In 1886, he opened his own shop, Leo S. Olschki, and published his first catalogue, which was met 'with the success he expected'. In effect, Olschki then introduced to Italy the rigorous catalogue descriptions pioneered by German bookdealers. In 1890, he transferred his shop to Venice, and in 1897 he established himself in Florence. In the decades that followed, Olschki became one of the most important bookdealers in the world. American art collector Henry Walters bought from him one hundred and fifty-eight manuscripts and hundreds of early printed books.

Olschki played an important role in the development of modern medieval scholarship. In 1886, he founded L'Alighieri, a journal dedicated to the study of Dante, and in 1899 La Bibliofilia, which published articles by Leopold Delisle, Eugène Müntz, Paolo D'Ancona and many other eminent scholars. His editorial choices reflected his personal interests, and also his bookdealing activities, notably in the case of incunabula, which were the subject of numerous articles in La Bibliofila. From 1914, La Bibiliofilia adopted an increasingly nationalistic position, campaigning for the preservation of Italian cultural patrimony, a position that would later echo Mussolini's cultural politics. But Olschki was a Jew: in 1938 he was forced into exile in Switzerland, where he died in 1940. 

Federico Botana

Source: Adressbuch der Antiquare (Weimar: Straubig & Müller, 1926)