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 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, a fascinating treat awaits…
Cosenza State Archives
During a visit at 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 building. And all because, I asked a staff member gingerly vacuuming old manuscripts, about her task. With great interest, I learnt that she vacuums manuscripts and old documents covered with dust and mites, as an interim to restoration.
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, and convent, witnessed many other uses 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 are gorgeous.
Finally taken below to the L’archivio deposito (archives’ deposit), this area 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 containing family history include births, deaths, marriages, legal titles, and military records from past centuries, and 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’m 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 require 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, and 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 documents 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 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 a 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.
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.
On to restoring
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 required restoration, the restorer measures the paper thickness to match the original paper 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.
First up in the process, every page – even a blank page – is numbered in pencil. Pages are then carefully dusted off.
Often pages of Medieval documents are already numbered, although loose pages inserted over time are not numbered. Page numbering is critical for 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 that pages can be worked on individually.
If documents are quite dirty then pages require washing in a warm solution of 50% white alcohol and 50% water. I know what you’re thinking…I also gasped at this whilst goose bumps crawled over my skin at the thought of washing away history.
Rest assured, old ink from centuries ago does not wash off but the newer biro ink does dissolve. A small test is done prior to proceeding just to make sure.
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 requires great skill so that no damage occurs by cutting into the original page. Restorers use a smooth blade made of bone during this phase.
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 the book is 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 cover is still 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 although mostly animal skin – calf, lamb, kid.
Traditional material such as animal skin is still used today for an 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 incredibly 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 only a brief overview and not as detailed or is as tedious as what actually occurs during restoration, but hope that this provides enough detail to spark an interest.
I must thank everyone from the Laboratorio di Legatoria e Restauro (bookbinding and restoration laboratory) 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? 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 then 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 passion and dedication of the restorers at Cosenza’s State Archives.