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. 

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

©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.

The Cincinnati Press. A Perfect All-Around Tool

As most people interested in the physical construction of books know, the history of bookbinding is largely unwritten and the majority of the evidence resides in the material books themselves. This is why book conservators try to preserve as much of the physical information as possible for future study, interpretation, aesthetic enjoyment, artifactual value, etc….  Although bindings are usually not dated, the bookblock usually is, which allows us to get a general idea when a book was made.

Bookbinding tools, however, are rarely dated and are often missing provenance. Identifying national styles is often based on connoisseurship and morphological characteristics rather than hard evidence.  In many ways bookbinding tools are more difficult to research than a binding. Often the most information we have about a particular tool is the reminiscence of a current owner, something along the lines of, “well, I bought it from Binder Bob in the 90s, and that’s about all I know”. Tools often are given or sold between binders, and sometimes used for 100s of years.

It is important for conservators to document and understand the broader context of how books were made (the foundation of bibliography), including tools and equipment historically used to make the books, since book conservation is still closer to its craft origins than other specialities.

Background

In order to understand a press more fully that I used while teaching at the Preservation Lab of the University of Cincinnati, I asked Tim Moore to make a replica or model of it. For a while it was on the back burner. As is sometimes the case, the making of a replica evolved into both of us thinking through ways to slightly tweak and improve it. Making a replica involves more time spent carefully looking than even making a drawing, giving time to think through many aspects of an object. A more selfish reason was that I simply really, really wanted a press like this for my own use!

 

The Cincinnati Finishing Press from the Preservation Lab of the University of Cincinnati.

At first I wondered if this press was altered in some way, especially the shape of the top edge. On further reflection, I don’t think so, considering the symmetrical distance between the handles and the top and sides. Yet it is impossible to be certain.

We decided to call it The Cincinnati Press. Some may rightly attribute this name to a lack of imagination on our part. At least it is better than yet another eponymous Peachey this or that.

All aspects of this press are carefully chosen, and contribute to its function: the handle placement, overall size, cheeks, handle design, and our addition of tying-up pins.

 

The Cincinnati Press. I haven’t driven the key home so it is slightly proud on the end, and haven’t put in the retaining pin in.

Handle placement

The extreme placement of the handles close to the top edge is likely the defining feature of this press.  It allows for a lot of pressure right at the spine edge, and is perfect for smaller books, since the press is less likely to yawn. It also fits older books which are sometimes wedge shaped.

Size

The replica press is 7.5 inches tall. This height positions the book spine close to your eyes, which is convenient when removing or applying linings if you have poor sight like I do. I prefer presses like this that support the book completely, rather than narrower profile ones. There are 12 inches between the screws, which according to my own thoroughly unscientific non-survey fits about 92.5% of books I usually work on.

Cheeks

The 1.25 inch thick cheeks (aka “five quarters” in the lumber world) resist deflection when tightening,  The sharp radius at the top edge also adds strength just where you need it to clamp a book or textblock firmly. The press is heavy enough not to slide around on the workbench. It can be used to gently back a rounded textblock, if you use a froitture rather than a hammer.

 

The Cincinnati Press, end view. Note the radius at the top which adds considerable pressing strength when combined with the thick and ridged cheeks.

Handle Design

The handles are smaller than usual for a press like this. Tim explained his thinking about the handles in an email, “I had never considered reducing the shoulder on the wooden screw this much but I like it. As you pointed out it adds strength (less leverage on the margin of the screw shoulder). I suppose there may be greater wear on the outside press surface (more psi of pressure) but it’s probably not significant with hard wood.” The original has a wider profile shoulder which is vulnerable to splitting. A thinner shoulder is also more comfortable to grasp.

 

The Cincinnati  Press. Detail of the tying-up pins and Tim’s careful selection of wood..

Tying-up pins

One significant change from the original was the addition of tying up pins, which are very useful. Tim also rethought his usual style and angle. He writes, “I drilled the tying-up pin holes at 15 degrees. This was a shallow enough angle that I could get a good start with a brad point drill. I didn’t think the ‘Vee’ channels that I’ve been using would look so good on this press. I think this is probably the way to go in future, provided the 15 degree slant is sufficient. My thinking is trending simpler these days and the channels now seem superfluous.”

The few tests I have done seem to confirm that 15 degrees is more than enough to keep the tying-up cords in place, and the pins themselves do not get in the way when using the press for other purposes. They actually make tying and untying quicker, since the cords slip on and off more easily, rather than getting trapped in a steep angle.

Conclusion

As with all of Tim’s equipment, the Cincinnati Press is meticulously crafted and beautifully finished. The wood screws are the super smooth — you can almost spin them! — and I look forward to enjoying it for the rest of my career.

I think I will increase the diameter of the handles for my next one (!) to gain more torque when tightening. Tim considers this unnecessary, though, “I can’t decide whether increasing the diameter of the handle would actually increase the mechanical advantage. For instance most screwdrivers have rather small handles and there is some important relationship to hand size and grip that someone understands better than I. Many folks have smaller hands which might argue for smaller handles. Also, if you need the press really tight you can grab both ends of the screw with both hands for the final cinch.” For some reason when I am using any wood press, it seems more common that I grab the threaded portion to adjust it. Maybe we don’t need a handle, just a threaded rod?

It is by far the nicest finishing press I have.

*****

I keep thinking about some broader questions, applicable to all tools, that reconstructing this press brought up. Can a particular piece of bookbinding equipment  inform us as to the working procedures of binders? Could it affect how a particular book functions and looks? What would be the evidence for this? How can we better document provenance in the historic tools and equipment we use and collect?

 


In you would like more information about purchasing a Cincinnati Press, contact Tim Moore directly at: scobeymoore <AT> frontiernet <DOT> net

The Conservation of Leather Bookbindings Workshop Review by Kasie Janssen

One month ago, I was able to attend The Conservation of Leather Bookbindings at the University of Notre Dame. The American Institute for Conservation (AIC) and the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation (FAIC) supported this 5-day workshop that was taught by book conservator and tool-maker Jeff Peachey. Conservation is a field that requires a constant love of learning new skills and techniques, so when I saw this workshop was hosted not too far from Cincinnati, I jumped at the opportunity to increase my knowledge on the conservation of leather bookbindings.

Jeff demonstrating a leather reback.

Leather is an interesting topic in book conservation, as many of the historic books we work on have full or partial leather bindings. Leather, like paper, comes in a variety of qualities, and has inherent issues as it ages over time. And we, as conservators, have many ways to combat these issues to make the books in our collections accessible to all.

This workshop offered an in-depth look at the many ways leather can be conserved, while also discussing the pros and cons of the various types of treatment options. This level of understanding is crucial part for us.  Think of it like taking a test – you can simply have the list of answers, or you can study and understand why the answers are in fact correct (any teacher will tell you they prefer the latter of these two options, and we do too!).

Joint tacketing and sewing extensions.

While the leather on the outside of a book is what most of us see when we look at our books and bookshelves, a large portion of the workshop focused on how those books are put together. If you’ve seen a leather book, you have likely seen a book that has its covers detached or missing. We talked about reattaching covers using techniques such as joint tackets, sewing extensions, slitting and slotting the boards, and tissue repairs. These are techniques that need to be considered before a leather reback, which was the final technique we learned, would take place.

One of the most beneficial aspects of the workshop was that we were able to practice these techniques on our own books. (I’ll take this time to note that these were not collection items! We like to practice on models or personal books first.) Being able to learn about the techniques and then practice them was a great way to use the hand skills needed for these types of treatments. Having our own personal examples that were treated also provides an application of how these techniques work and wear over time.

Detail of sewing extensions that come out under the original sewing supports.

The workshop also covered leather dying, as well as knife sharpening – a crucial tool for working with leather, and leather paring techniques and tools.

I have to say, the workshop happened in the week before Covid-19 began impacting the United States on a massive scale. All of the attendees remained in contact with their home institutions and families throughout the week as news progressed. The workshop, though, provided a sort of conservation utopia where we could turn off the news and focus on the profession that we all love. Jeff Peachey was an incredible instructor, offering vast amounts of knowledge and insight that we can apply to our day-to-day work. And the staff and facilities at the University of Notre Dame provided the perfect environment for our leather conservation deep dive. A sincere thank you to Jeff, the University of Notre Dame, AIC and FAIC for the wonderful workshop.

While I continue my work-from-home, I will be finishing a few of the treatments I had started during the workshop, and also practicing things like leather paring, leather dying, and repair techniques. This will ensure that when we are back in The Preservation Lab, I’ll be able to provide assistance on many of the damaged leather books that are waiting for our tender loving care.

Paring leather for a reback.

In the meantime check out some more photos from the workshop on our @ThePreservationLab Instagram!  And follow us if you don’t already to see what we are up to in our work-from-home spaces.

 

Kasie Janssen (PLCH) is the Senior Conservation Technician of The Preservation Lab, a collaborative hybrid lab of The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and the University of Cincinnati Libraries in Ohio. She works on both special and general collection items for both institutions. She holds an MSLIS from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and has been working in the field of conservation since 2014.