Historical Book Models and their Relevance to Conservation Studies: Thoughts on the Montefiascone Conservation Project Summer School and the Nature of Book Conservation

Scott W. Devine

In 2015, I taught a course on 16th century Italian slotted parchment bindings for the Montefiascone Project Summer School. I was excited to be a part of the program that year, which celebrated 25 years of teaching conservation and bookbinding at the Seminario Barbarigo. The process of designing the course and being involved in a subsequent research project provided insights into the value of recreating historical book structures.

I attended my first course at Montefiascone in 1998. Having recently completed an internship at the Library of Congress, which included working on a pigment consolidation project for a collection of illuminated manuscripts, I was eager to learn more about the techniques used to create these manuscripts, and Cheryl Porter’s course on “Re-creating the Medieval Palette” represented an ideal combination of lecture and hands-on practice. The process of grinding minerals and boiling organic matter to create a range of color opened my eyes to the incredible value of recreating historical processes: understanding how an object was created through practicing historical techniques can lead to unique insights into how to go about conserving that object. In this sense, learning how to recreate historical processes and techniques becomes a fundamental aspect of training and professional development for a conservator.

Portfolios were constructed after the course to house the pigment samples. The samples serve as teaching and reference tools and are consulted regularly.
Organic dyes were used to color paper, alum-tawed skins, and linen, providing some good  examples of how the dyes react to various materials.

Over the past 30 years, the Montefiascone Project has developed into a well-established international training ground for conservators, bookbinders and scholars: a unique place to explore bookbinding technique, book history and conservation issues in a collaborative and creative environment.  The book program in particular has developed into one of the best ways to study historical structures, often in the context of a specific bookbinding selected from some of the premier rare book collections in the world. 

I taught the slotted parchment structure using a copy of Hesiodou tou Askraiou Erga kai hemerai (the Greek poet Hesiod’s Works and Days), printed by Bartolomeo Zanetti in Venice in 1537 and currently held by Northwestern University Library. The printed text is derived from a 15th century Greek manuscript held by the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. In preparing the course, I started thinking about the larger issues surrounding why we study historical book structures and why the construction of historical models is so critical to the study of book conservation. 

1. Developing and refining conservation skills. 

Constructing historical models allows the conservator to develop bookbinding and conservation skills in a way that treatment alone does not. While most book conservators have studied traditional bookbinding techniques, such as covering with leather or constructing brass clasps, these skills are infrequently required in modern book conservation and are all too often lost.  Maintaining these skills allows us to use them when needed and appropriate. More importantly, however, the continued refinement of these traditional skills allows us to spot variations in technique on the historic bindings we handle. Being able to distinguish variations can assist in dating or identifying the region of creation and lead to further insights into the spread of bookbinding technique.

On a more personal level for the conservator, constructing a book from the beginning allows for a free expression of intent not always possible in conservation treatment. Conservation has always been an exercise in compromise and balance: artifactual value, curatorial needs, and the changing political and cultural norms that guide our work. At a time when so much of our work is driven by external factors beyond collections care – digitization initiatives and exhibition schedules chief among them – having the time to get lost in the details of a specific book, if only for week, can be both invigorating and rejuvenating. 

2. Gaining insight into historical techniques.

There are two common approaches to recreating historical book structures: 1) constructing a facsimile binding which combines aspects of the most typical examples of the structure being studied; and 2) recreating a specific book. Both methods allow for the development of the hand skills discussed above. However, the latter approach allows us to look more closely into the physical aspects of a specific object, often requiring a higher degree of attention to detail in order to make the facsimile function in the same way.

The process of reproducing a specific binding often challenges our assumptions about how the object was created in the first place and invites us to investigate specific components in detail. In the case of the Northwestern Hesiod, trying to achieve specific results led to a greater understanding of how the book was produced, including how the pasteboards were constructed and how the covering vellum was processed.

We often look at an object and think we know how it was created, but until we try to replicate the technique, we don’t really know. With the Northwestern Hesiod, I conducted numerous experiments to create a modern pasteboard that mimicked the weight, feel and function of the original. The process of making these sample boards led to a better understanding of the role of the pasteboard in controlling the movement of the covering vellum. As a result, one component of the course focused on creating pasteboards with Fabriano CMF Ingress (Bright White) 90 gsm paper. Each board consisted of 17 layers with alternating grain direction, beginning and ending with the grain parallel to the spine of the book. The layers were attached with thick wheat starch paste and pressed briefly in a book press to remove excess paste. Air drying was essential, and if the layers started to delaminate, they were placed briefly back in the book press. The resulting board was lightweight but surprisingly rigid and strong enough to counter the tension of the vellum covering material.

The vellum also posed a challenge. Careful study of the covering vellum, a recycled 15th century manuscript heavy scraped and sanded on one side to remove the original text, led to collaboration with Jesse Meyer at Pergamena to custom produce remarkably thin vellum for the project. Various experiments in covering with the thin, unlined vellum resulted in new skills and techniques which were put to good use during a subsequent parchment binding repair project at The New York Academy of Medicine in 2018.

3. Engaging in scholarly research.

In preparing the course on the Northwestern Hesiod, I had the opportunity to engage in traditional scholarly research in a way that is not typical of most conservation treatments.  My research with the Hesiod began as an effort to understand more about the slotted parchment structure and to quantify holdings in North American research libraries. The goal was to build on the research begun by Silvia Pugliese and, specifically, to determine the prevalence of slotted parchment bindings in collections outside Italy.1 

In the process of studying slotted parchment bindings, however, my interest developed into learning more about Bartolomeo Zanetti and the other books he printed during his time in Venice. I became particularly interested in how these volumes fit into the larger economic and social context of the period, especially the rise of Protestantism and the effect of the Catholic Counter-Reformation on the Venetian book trade. 

During a research trip to Venice, I had the opportunity to study the 15th century manuscript by Demetrio Damilas, Marc. Gr. IX 6 (coll.1006), which Zanetti used to create the 1537 Hesiod. In fact, the 1537 Hesiod is notable for the extensive scholia, or notes, which were copied from the Marciana manuscript. Zanetti’s efforts to edit and reproduce the scholia are remarkable. The way in which the printed book reflects the original manuscript is a fascinating case study in the intersection between manuscript and print culture and represents another aspect of research which will be discussed in the course.

Detail of the 15th century manuscript Zanetti consulted to produce the printed book. The manuscript contains inky black fingerprints and other traces of printer’s ink, likely evidence of Zanetti’s time working with the manuscript.

Having the opportunity to engage in this level of scholarly research is important for the conservator. Understanding how individual objects are used by researchers, putting ourselves in the role of those researchers, helps inform the decisions we make about preserving artifactual value and makes us more aware of ways in which our collections are being used by scholars.

4. Collaborating with colleagues in other fields.

My interest in the Northwestern Hesiod led me to make connections with experts in the fields of both Renaissance Studies and Classical Studies. Learning more about Hesiod and Greek scholarship in the Renaissance has led me to a better understanding of why so many books were being printed in Greek in the early 16th century and the role of Greek language in the development of Italian Humanism. Learning more about the efforts of 14th century scholars such as Giovanni Boccaccio and Francesco Petrarca to revive the study of Greek and the importance of work by early teachers of Greek such as Manuel Chrysoloras provided new insights into how and why the Venetian book trade developed as it did in the early 16th century and why the study of Greek texts was so important at this time.

In addition, my research on the covering vellum and the recycled manuscript, which was assumed to be from the early 15th century based on paleographic analysis, led to consultation with the Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts, a collaborative venture between Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago. A team of conservators from Northwestern developed a project proposal and worked closely with conservation scientists and imaging specialists from the Center to design and carry out a research project to uncover the text on the manuscript.

We were particularly interested in the manuscript text as it could shed new light on the kinds of manuscripts which were being dismantled during the early 16th century. It was even possible that the extensive marginal notes on the manuscript may reveal unique commentary, even if the principal text was not unique itself. In fact, the principal text and scholia, in Latin, were identified as part of the Institutes of Justinian, an early effort to codify Roman law and a foundation for modern Western European legal systems. The marginal notes, in Greek, represent unique interpretations, adding to the scholarly study of civil law in 15th century Italy. The results of this research were published in 2017.2

My time working with the Northwestern Hesiod led me to conclude that the making of historical book models represents one of the best ways to explore firsthand the complex nature of book structure and to develop insights into conservation technique. Moreover, the study and construction of historical models represents a unique opportunity for anyone, from amateur bookbinder to experienced conservator, to experience history in a way that few people can. It reminds us of how we connect to the objects and techniques that excite and inspire our work and represents a salient reminder of why we do the work we do. 

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Silvia Pugliese.  “Stiff-Board Vellum Binding with Slotted Spine: A Survey of a Historical Bookbinding Structure.” Papier Restaurierung: Mitteilungen der IADA.  Vol. 2 (2001), 93-101. Online.

Emeline Pouyet, et al.“Revealing the biography of a hidden medieval manuscript using synchrotron and conventional imaging techniques,” Analytica Chimica Acta, Volume 982, (22 August 2017), 20-30. Print.

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©2021 Scott W. Devine

An earlier version of this essay appeared as a blog post on Beyond the Book: Preservation and Conservation at Northwestern University Library on June 17, 2015. It is no longer online.

Scott W. Devine is a book and paper conservator with over twenty years of experience in the field of conservation. He holds a Masters of Information Science with an Advanced Certificate in Conservation Studies from the University of Texas at Austin and received additional training in rare book conservation at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. and at the Centro del bel libro in Ascona, Switzerland. He has established conservation programs at three major research libraries in the United States and consulted on a broad range of conservation projects throughout Europe and North America. His research interests include the history of Italian bookbinding and the politics of preservation in Italy. He has designed and taught courses for the Montefiascone Conservation Project Summer School in Italy and currently works as a paper conservator for the Smithsonian Institution.

2018 Historical Book Structures Practicum: Demonstrating, Draw Knives, and Paring Tawed Skins

I recently finished teaching a month long workshop on historic bindings for the Library and Archives Conservation Education Consortium of Buffalo State University, New York University, and the Winterthur/ University of Delaware. LACE for short. Seven MA students in conservation completed six historic models from the 15th to the 20th centuries.

This year it was hosted by The Winterthur/ University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation and took place in the first year student classroom, which is a really great space to teach in. The room has individual work stations for the students, as well as a group area with moveable work tables for lectures, ppt’s, discussion, and demonstrations.

One configuration of the classroom.

It is important that the students can be comfortable and close enough to observe details during demonstrations. In this configuration, students could sit to watch and take notes, and I could stand, which is how I like to work. Having a task light would have made it ideal.

Edge of a bookblock cut with a drawknife. Photo Nicole Alvarado.

For our late Gothic model, some of the students wanted to try out a drawknife instead of a plough for edge cutting. Nicole Alvarado worked the edge in the above image. We found it quite difficult it is to achieve an edge that looked like historic examples. We had to start with the sides of the bookblock in order to shave it down. The resulting edges did not look like the example depicted in Fig. 9.14 from J.A. Szirmai’s The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding or on a first first folio of Shakespeare.

The edges on the Shakespeare and in Szirmai were presumably cut with a skewed and sliding stroke of a drawknife, with one stroke at a time advancing a significant amount through the book. It is easy to imagine this when looking at the images. We found it impossible to replicate this, though. Was our drawknife too small, the blade angle too obtuse, modern paper too hard, or our arms too weak?  A combination of all of these? Or was a different tool used? In both of these examples, each chop could have been caused by an aze or adze, in order to penetrate so far through the thickness of the bookblock. Time for more experimentation!

Paring and scraping a tawed skin with a round knife. Photo Karissa Muratore.

In bookbinding, usually vegetable tanned goat is the easiest leather to pare, followed by vegetable tanned calf, then tawed goat or calf. Tawed pig the most difficult. Tawed skins are quite abrasive, and quickly dull any knife. Karissa Muratore did a wonderful job of paring an alum tawed calfskin for her Gothic Model binding. Although tawed pigskin would have been traditional, all of the major bookbinding leather producers are no longer offering them, citing difficulty in obtaining quality raw skins.

Karissa’s image illustrates how a rounded blade knife can be used for edge paring (note the pieces in the foreground) and scraping (note the shavings in the background). Scraping is a safe, but slow way to even a skin out, as well as thin the spine and headcap area. I think that 15th century binders would have received the skins the appropriate thickness overall from the tanner, and only had to edge pare.

This late Gothic binding — clasps, alum tawed skin, wooden boards, double cord sewing —  is a satisfying final project, combining bookbinding, woodworking and metalworking skills.

By the end of the month, the students were more than happy to demonstrate what they learned about safe, professional, and thoughtful tool use.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dr. Christopher Clarkson on Conservation Education

I could write a number of posts just introducing Christopher Clarkson. This is the very,very short version. He graduated from the Royal College of Art, London, then worked for S. M. Cockerell, and Roger Powell. In 1966 he was sent to Florence after the flood & taught in Italy and England till 1971. In 1972 Clarkson moved to the Library of Congress, concentrating in Special Collections. In 1977 Clarkson moved to The Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore to set up a book conservation studio, he also helped Dr. Lilian Randall, adding many of the parchment & binding descriptions  to her great manuscript catalogue. He returned to England in 1979 as the first Conservation Officer at The Bodleian Library Oxford. Concerned about training, in 1987 Clarkson moved to West Dean College, where he ran an internship programme & worked on many medieval manuscripts. Most recently Clarkson has reported on the early 5th century Ms. Syriac 30 & the ‘New Finds’ of Codex Sinaiticus for the Monastery of St. Catherine’s. Currently he is conservation consultant to Hereford Cathedral Chained Library & Mappa Mundi, The Bodleian Library & to The Wordsworth Trust.

Quite likely, he has done more to create awareness of traditional materials, research the context of older structures, and impart sensitivity to treatments than any other book conservator.  And he generously shares this knowledge through teaching and in publications. Many of his articles form the foundations of the field. In July, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from The University of Arts London. Chris describes that he “was given two minutes for a speech in which he wanted to try to heighten the profile of conservation within the University also to stress why an art school system is probably still right for the  subject.”

Like most of his writing, the speech below is quite dense and warrants reflection.

…..

CLARKSON’S HONORARY DOCTORATE SPEECH

“It is a great pleasure to be back amongst art school people. I started at Camberwell School of Art in the 1950’s when I was thirteen, when it was still very much academic & Arts & Crafts based. The observational, painting techniques & graphic printing skills I learnt there have been essential in my later career as a conservator.

Conservation is a subject that bridges many disciplines – history, chemistry, engineering, material science etc. Possibly because of this, specific educational committees have said, “this is not ours” & passed it on to other committees. Above everything, it is a discipline which requires a high level of visual & craft skills plus ‘historical awareness’, my phrase, meant to express a deeper knowledge, sympathy & thus respect for the integrity of a period artefact. The danger in poor restoration/conservation training is ‘facsimile’ – the misconception that past cultures & their artefacts can be recreated – they cannot.

What I have tried to develop and teach are the principles of conservation as applied to period book structures, the diversity and the unexpected is what I am trying to preserve. This means teaching a wide and ever growing variety of techniques, utilizing a wide variety of materials and treatments out of which imaginative and historically sensitive young people can begin to find the answers to the problems that damaged books will present.

I am very interested in the choices conservators make in their treatments and how these decisions may influence our interpretation of an object. Thus observational skills are central to any conservation programme, I mean traditional drawing skills – to train the eye is to train the mind.

Conservation belongs in the Humanities, which are suffering badly in the present educational climate. I do hope the University can continue to support, & if possible broaden its commitment to its conservation course. It is a resource intensive discipline, expensive in time, training & quality materials, tools & equipment; a high percentage of bench-work is essential.

There has never been a greater need for well-trained conservators who not only know the techniques but also the cultural significance of what they will be working on. The support that the University gives to such courses is of enormous value.

I would like to congratulate all the students receiving their degrees today & wish you a bright & interesting future.

To the University I thank you for the honour you bestow on me.”

-Christopher Clarkson, 16 July 2012

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