Jun 172015

I have spent the past year preparing for a course that Tonia Grafakos and I will teach on an Italian Stiff Board Vellum Binding with Slotted Spine for the Montefiascone Conservation Project Summer School. I am excited and honored to be a part of the program this year, which will celebrate 25 years of teaching preservation, conservation, and bookbinding history at the Seminario Barbarigo.

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” presented 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.


Over the past 25 years, the Montefiascone Conservation 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.

This summer, we will be teaching the slotted parchment structure using the Northwestern Hesiod, 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. The printed text is derived from a 15th century Greek manuscript currently held by the Biblioteca Marciana in Venice. In preparing the course, I have been 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 in to 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 are all factors which influence the final product. 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 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 has led us to a greater understanding of how the book was produced, including how the pasteboards were constructed and how the covering vellum was processed.

We 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, we conducted numerous experiments in order to create a modern pasteboard that mimicked the weight, feel and function of the original. The process of making these sample boards led to greater insights into the role of the pasteboard in controlling the movement of the covering vellum. As a result, one component of our course will focus on the best way to create pasteboard using modern materials.

The covering vellum also posed a challenge. After experiments with various thicknesses of vellum and various methods of application, we have developed a technique for covering with unlined vellum which greatly simplifies the process. Careful study of the covering vellum, which we believe to be a recycled 15th century manuscript heavy scraped or sanded on one side to remove the original text, led to collaboration with Jesse Meyer at Pergamena to custom produce remarkably thin vellum for our project.


3. Engaging in scholarly research.

In preparing the course on the Northwestern Hesiod, we had the opportunity to engage in traditional scholarly research at a level beyond what is typical of our day-to-day work. Our 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. Our goal was to build on research by Silvia Pugliese and, specifically, to determine the prevalence of slotted parchment bindings in collections outside Italy. In the process of studying slotted parchment bindings, however, our interest developed into learning more about Bartolomeo Zanetti and other books he printed during his time in Venice. We wanted to understand 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, we 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 of the intersection between manuscript and print culture and represents another aspect of research which will be discussed in our course.

Marc. gr. IX, 6 (coll. 1006)

Detail of the 15th century manuscript Zanetti consulted to produce the printed book.

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.

Our interest in the Northwestern Hesiod has allowed us 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 us 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 has given us a better understanding of 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, our interest in the covering vellum and what the recycled manuscript might reveal has led to consultation with NU-ACCESS and the possibility of research using multispectral imaging and X-ray fluorescence to uncover the text on the manuscript.

We are particularly interested in the manuscript text as it may shed new light on the kinds of manuscripts which were being dismantled during the early 16th century. It is possible that the extensive marginal notes on the manuscript may reveal unique commentary, even if the principal text is not itself unique.


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 engage with history in a way that few people can.  If you have never experienced the Montefiascone Conservation Project Summer School, I invite you to join us for this year’s extraordinary anniversary program.

  3 Responses to “Historical Book Models and their Relevance to Conservation Studies”

  1. Good post. What solution did you find to reasonably accurate pasteboards?

    • In the books we surveyed, which were primarily Italian, c. 1550-1600, we identified as many as 12-14 layers of printer’s waste paper making up each board. We used offcuts of Fabriano CMF Ingress (Bright White) 90 gsm, the same paper as our textblock. Using a fairly thick preparation of wheat starch paste, we created boards with 17 layers each, alternating the grain direction with the grain parallel to the spine on the inside and outside board faces. The alternating grain direction produced a reasonably flexible board that responds well to the vellum covering material without warping. Although the original boards were unlikely to have been layered with such precision, this is what was required to reproduce the working properties of the original with the paper we were using. Pressing overnight under light weight was enough to adhere the layers, with a couple days of air drying afterwards. The boards were placed under light weight periodically throughout the drying process to control warping. The result was a rigid yet lightweight board very similar in feel to the board used on the original binding.

  2. Great post! I am very excited about this course!

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