EP Award Promo

War on a tabletop


About seven years ago, Harry and Pam Bookey lived for a few months in Italy. The rich art and long history of the place would have been reward enough, but then a friend introduced them to someone who knew a way to capture some of that ambience and bring it down to tabletop size.

It’s military and toy-based — kind of a guy thing — so Pam’s only real interest would be in the people they met as a result of this connection. But Harry was fascinated. In the Florence workshop of Mario Venturi, he found a compelling combination of boyhood fantasy, Old World history and an inspiring attention to detail.

Venturi makes battle scenes. He molds metal alloy soldiers and horses – and flags, weapons, wagons, whatever is called for – that stand between 2 and 3 inches tall, then paints them in a perfectly realistic style, using a brush with a single hair when necessary. His creations have nothing in common with the random battles of a child at play; they’re based on painstaking research and endless planning.

Bookey, who spends his days researching real estate as the president of BH Equities LLC, couldn’t resist. “I commissioned him to do something for me,” he said. “The Battle of Montaperti.”

No, of course you’ve never heard of it.

It was a knock-down, drag-out confrontation between the armies of two Italian cities, Siena and Florence, and it took place Sept. 4, 1260. There, now you’re one of the leading experts in North America, outside the academic world. But you’re still well behind Bookey and light-years behind Venturi.

The Italian master spent a few months deciding which moment to depict. He and his associates visited the battle site. Then he put in 4,000 hours, by his count, to create a work of art.

The original plan called for 18 pieces. “But every three or four months I would get a letter saying ‘there’s not enough pathos – could we add more figures?’” Bookey said. You certainly don’t want to cut corners when you’re dealing in pathos, so the answer was always yes. The finished diorama contains 42 pieces.

The cost of each figure ranged between $700 and $1,200, Bookey said.

In a handsome, 128-page book devoted to this particular creation, Venturi wrote, as translated from the Italian, “Although many difficulties had to be overcome, both in the planning and in the actual construction, with relative critical moments and sleepless nights, the work was actually fun and greatly enriched all the participants from a professional point of view.”

When it was finished, Venturi brought the diorama to the United States and displayed it for the first time at an international miniatures exhibition in Oakbrook, Ill. “I was pretty well stunned by it,” Bookey said. The editor of “Historical Miniatures” magazine “said he was in shock.”

The piece was named best of show, and Venturi received the title of grand master.

The Battle of Montaperti traveled west, and the Bookeys held its Des Moines unveiling in a tent on their lawn.

Now the diorama sits in their home, one of many wonderful objects of art there. It measures about 12 inches by 23 inches and is protected by a substantial plastic cover.

Elsewhere in the house, Bookey displays miniature soldiers acquired from various sources, including a London auction of more than 1,000 lots. His boyhood collection of about 200 toy soldiers has been joined by 300 to 400 collectible models.

“I have an interest,” he said. “I’m not a true collector.”

But the Venturi work means a great deal to him. What he would really like to do is establish a miniatures museum in Des Moines, with the Battle of Montaperti as the center of one exhibit. Whether that happens or not, Bookey has a long-term plan for his prize. “We’ll give it to the Salisbury House when we die,” he said.

And there’s another battle on the way. Bookey commissioned Venturi to create a diorama based on The Charge of the Light Brigade, a project that began some 18 months ago and probably won’t be done for another three and half years.

Some people seem to grasp the virtues of the Montaperti diorama, Bookey said, and some think it’s a bit silly.

He and Venturi are firmly in the camp of those who find great value in war shrunk to manageable size.

Venturi, that obsessive perfectionist, wrote in the book “I certainly have no intention to idealize, and even less to be in love with, war. … It is rather the desire or to visualize, to touch history, not just to read about it. …We are therefore speaking of the necessity to understand one’s own roots and finally, oneself. Something that began a long time ago, when we were children, with those gypsum and rubber toy soldiers.”

nyemaster web 080123 300x250