Ulrico Hoepli
Ulrico Hoepli. Public Domain.

Johann Ulrich Hoepli was born in Tuttwil, a village in rural Switzerland. His mother, Regina, was housebound by a chronic illness, yet every week she managed to borrow books from the nearest town's public library, instilling in Ulrich a love of reading at the age of five. Ulrich excelled at primary school and, something then extraordinary in a peasant family, he attended a secondary school.

In 1862, at the age of fourteen, Ulrich was engaged as an apprentice by the bookdealer Jakob Schabelitz in Zurich. He was then taken under the wing of the novelist, literary critic and history professor Johannes Scherr, who encouraged Ulrich to attend his course in Zurich Polytechnic. After completing his studies, Hoepli worked in the bookshop of Wilhelm Essmann in Trieste, where in 1869 he met the Ottoman viceroy of Egypt, Ismail Pasha, who invited him to Cairo to organise his private library.

A year later, Hoepli (with his first name Italianised to Ulrico) had amassed enough money to buy the old bookshop in Milan which became the famous Libreria Antiquaria Ulrico Hoepli. He then realised that publishing was not keeping pace with industrialisation – so in 1872 he started publishing the Guida per le arti e mestieri (a journal for all types of industries) and a series of technical manuals (including one for engineers). This earned him a place amongst the rich bourgeoisie of Milan, where he became a member of several prestigious societies and the publisher for the Italian Royal Navy. In the 1920s, Hoepli was wealthy enough to finance the construction of Italy’s largest planetarium, the Planetario di Milano, which he donated to the city and which can still be visited today.

However, it was only in the 1920s that Hoepli acquired his reputation as an antique book dealer, after that section of his business was entrusted to the Neapolitan bibliophile Mario Armani and Hoepli's nephew Erhard Aeschileman. Between 1925 and 1940, they organised more than fifty auction sales in Milan, Rome, Lucerne and Zurich. The quality of the manuscripts sold in those auctions the meticulousness of their catalogue entries have rarely been rivalled.

Federico Botana

Source: Luca Montagner, L’antiquariato Hoepli: una prima ricognizione tra i documenti e i cataloghi (Milan: EDUCatt, 2017)