Experience a love affair with the restoration of Medieval books in southern Italy at Cosenza’s State Archives. Time dissolves into the past just as pages from ancient books dissolve, and are lost to history if not restored and treasured.
Ever wondered how books dating back to Medieval times and beyond are restored, or whether restored at all?
Privileged to be invited to watch the restoration process in Cosenza’s State Archives, I was in for a fascinating treat.
Cosenza State Archives
Whilst visiting the Archivio di Stato (State Archives) in Cosenza as my family history beckoned, I happened to be given a quick tour in the depths of this ancient State Archives’ building.
And all because, I asked a staff member that was gingerly vacuuming old manuscripts, about her task. With great interest, I learnt that she vacuums manuscripts and old documents that are covered in dust and mites, as an interim to restoration.
Always the inquisitive one, I started a deluge of questions, but first, a little on the building itself.
Founded in the 15th-century, the Santuario di San Francesco di Paola, which includes a church, monastery, convent, and more, witnessed many other uses such as by monarchs, administration departments, WWII Germans soldiers, and since 2007, the State Archives.
Restoration of the complex uncovered Frescos, which German soldiers tiled over when used as rooms during WWII.
Finally, I was taken below to the L’archivio deposito (archives’ deposit), which incorporates humidified rooms.
Including 1.5 million parchments, the State Archives is home to over 1,500 kilometres (about 1,000 miles) in linear measurement of documents.
Documents which hold family history such as, births, deaths, marriages, legal titles, and military records from past centuries, date back to the 1400s.
For an Australian that has never seen this type of room or such old pieces of history in the flesh, I am totally fascinated and felt compelled to write about this important work.
My mission is to write the restorers’ story as no one here seems interested in their wonderful daily work. Yes, it is their job, however, I believe that for these artisans, it is more than a job – it is a passion of preservation.
Understanding the importance of retaining this history for future generations is paramount in what the restorers do each day.
A skilful art, the restoration of archival materials requires great patience in this tedious and painstaking art form, for which there is no school that exclusively provides training. You learn on the job and your colleagues become your mentors.
In some restoration labs, a restorer performs different tasks to a conservationist. Although in Cosenza’s State Archives, the restorers learn and work the end-to-end process, then also pass on this valuable knowledge to any newcomers.
Origins of the books
In Italy, a Notary retains artefacts for 80 to 100 years. Following this period, artefacts are transferred to the State Archives for life, and restoration. The books arrive at the State Archives from around Calabria.
Some arrive in reasonable condition, some in bad condition, and others in what can only be described, as tragic condition.
Books which are stored in ancient convents, medieval churches, and other edifices are not always stored in optimal condition warranted, especially for such treasures.
Instead, books remain on shelves but not under glass or protection. And so, fall helpless victims to damage from book worm, fungus, water, silverfish, and mice – to name but a few assailants. All of which wait eagerly in the corridors of time for their feast, and to quietly eat their way through history.
Typically, books which lean against the wall are in worse condition, as these absorb moisture from Medieval stone, which also starts the fungus damage. Rapidly, these conditions eat away pages of family antiquity, often leaving massive holes right through the centre of a five-inch centuries-old book – it’s heartbreaking to witness.
If these assailants are not enough, then floods, earthquakes, heat, light, atmospheric and humidity influences, all play a role in this restoration race when books are not stored correctly.
The condition in which the book is in, dictates how much restoration is required but also the timeframe in which the book is to be restored.
Apart from examining the document to gauge the level of restoration required, the restorer measures the paper thickness to match the original paper’s weight and also determines a colour match. During the restorative process, it is also important to retain as close as possible, the document’s original characteristics.
On to restoring
First up in the process, every page (even a blank page) is numbered in pencil, and dusted off.
Often pages of Medieval documents are already numbered, although when loose pages have been inserted over time, these have not been numbered. The numbering is critical when re-assembling the document.
If storage through the years has been kind, then the older documents are in relatively good condition because of the type of paper and ink used.
The document is then unstitched and disassembled, so pages can be worked on individually.
Some documents are quite dirty so pages require washing in a warm solution of 50% white alcohol and 50% water. I know what you are thinking, as I also gasped whilst goose bumps crawled over my skin, at the thought of washing away history.
But rest assured, old ink from centuries ago does not wash off, it is the newer biro ink that dissolves. A small test is done prior to proceeding, regardless.
Perhaps back then, everyone understood that things were meant to last well into the future – we could all learn something from our forebears.
Pages are then dried overnight on special racks.
Actual restoration of the paper is the next task. A special two-part Japanese tissue paper and veil is used for its longevity and thinness properties.
Depending on the extent of the damage, either the whole page is sandwiched between the Japanese tissue and veil, or small sections and tears are repaired individually. Tylose, a water soluble and physiologically harmless adhesive, which micro-organisms don’t enjoy, is used during this phase.
Removing the adhesive paper until only the veil remains so that no damage occurs, requires skill so as not to cut into the original page – a smooth blade made of bone is used.
This critical part of the process is extremely slow and tedious.
A set of steady hands, patience, and concentration are required.
Pages are reassembled and hand-sewn back together in small sections, then together into larger sections, until completed.
Tylose adhesive is also applied to the spine.
The original hard cover is always used if still in good condition. Although, if the original is not salvageable, then a new cover and spine are hand-made. The original is washed and stored in archive draws as many authentic covers, still contain fragments of writing on the inside.
As cardboard did not exist in Medieval times, covers were made from various materials but mostly animal skin (calf, lamb, kid).
Traditional materials such as animal skin is still used today, for the the older book’s cover and spine.
Lovingly repaired for future generations.
For the more recent books such as from the late 1800s, replacement cardboards and papers are carefully selected to match and preserve the integrity of the original book.
I found today’s lesson on the restoration process and the craftsmanship captivating.
This may be due to my love of books or the love of historical artefacts, which I believe is paramount to preserve.
The process in this post is a brief overview and is not as detailed nor tedious as to what actually occurs, although it provides enough detail to hopefully spark an interest.
I must thank everyone from the Laboratorio di Legatoria e Restauro (bookbinding and restoration workshop) department for explaining the restoration and conservation process – their patience and dedication to this art is humbling.
Do you have a State Archives in your home city or town and is this type of restoration performed?
Apparently, not much funding is in the coffers for the restoration work. Simply put, if there isn’t any funding, the restoration work is not done. And so, time triumphs and envelops the deterioration of generational history.
Incredulous is that funding is not forthcoming to such an important part of continuing historical facts, especially with the passionate dedication of the restorers at Cosenza’s State Archives.