Restoration Love Affair with Medieval Books: State Archives, Cosenza

July, 2018

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

A small snapshot (Photo credit: Francesco Scigliano)

Restoration of the complex uncovered Frescos, which German soldiers tiled over when used as rooms during WWII.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Stunning Frescos – note the two vertical areas of missing artwork where walls finished.

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Humidified Archives Deposit

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Beautiful public area

Understanding the importance of retaining this history for future generations is paramount in what the restorers do each day.

Restoration artisans

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Pino demonstrating his craft – painstakingly trimming excess veil with a fine blade

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Tragic condition – lost history

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Ancient leather binder

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Small village of Cerisano’s book in extreme condition – missing details can never be replaced

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.

Restoration preliminary

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Notary document c. 1772-1774

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

“Time and tide wait for no man” – Geoffrey Chaucer

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

“Ink is one of the most important components of records” – UNESCO

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Pre-Latin (‘Vulgar Latin’) – small hand drawing is the Notary’s stamp

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Love the different hand-drawn Notary stamps

The document is then unstitched and disassembled, so pages can be worked on individually.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

A later document – c.1800s

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Washing bays

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Drying process

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Sandwiched between 2 cardboards overnight in a manual or electronic press

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Original sandwiched between Japanese paper and veil

This critical part of the process is extremely slow and tedious.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Small repair ready for careful and precise trimming

A set of steady hands, patience, and concentration are required.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Removing excess tissue with a fine blade and tweezers

Pages are reassembled and hand-sewn back together in small sections, then together into larger sections, until completed.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

More tools of the trade

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Sewing top and bottom

Tylose adhesive is also applied to the spine.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Awaiting the next step

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Ingrained leather absorbs centuries of history

As cardboard did not exist in Medieval times, covers were made from various materials but mostly animal skin (calf, lamb, kid).

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Restored from the 1600s

Traditional materials such as animal skin is still used today, for the the older book’s cover and spine.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy


Lovingly repaired for future generations.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Craftsman’s restoration

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Cosenza, Italy

Carefully selected cardboard, spine, and final cover’s paper


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?

Cosenza, Calabria, Italy

Gorgeous Cosenza – State Archives left next to bell tower

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.

Visit Nilla’s Photography for more global images. More posts on Italy.


52 thoughts on “Restoration Love Affair with Medieval Books: State Archives, Cosenza

    • Thank you for your feedback!
      It is a fascinating but time-consuming process to watch and requires such dedication and patience. Gald you learnt a lot. Please feel free to share my post with others so that the fantastic work of the State Archives is known.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. WOW!!!! Nilla, this is absolutely fascinating. How fab that you were able to see this…such painstaking work which I would not be able to do, not least for the fact that I’d be trying to understand what has been written! Thank you for sharing this, so much 🙂 xxx

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi, yes, it was for me also, but really enjoyed the lesson and would love to try some restoration myself. I think it’s the thought of helping to preserve all the history that appeals to me a lot.

      That was recommended a while back for bloggers to do as I’m currently living in Europe and laws changed. I can’t remember exactly why, sorry, as I purged that info. I’ve noticed a lot of bloggers have added an actual Privacy page to their site with a lot more details and as a separate menu item, so not sure what that’s all about.

      Liked by 1 person

    • No problem, glad to be of help. I’m not sure why many blogs are starting to include a separate page with loads of details though.
      That’s a valuable job your daughter has…you should harness that! 🙂


  2. This post was so incredible to read! I am always fascinated when I visit different comunes and find myself in front of old documents. It’s so insane to think how old some of those documents are and to see some of them in such terrible condition is heartbreaking! I do love he old style writing with all the loops and curls – even though it’s really hard to read! What an amazing experience!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you! I really enjoyed writing about this restoration work as I found it fascinating.

      Yes, it is insane and especially as some books date back to the pre-Latin language, which really puts everything into perspective.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ciao and thank you Suzanne – kind words indeed.
      I really enjoyed going through the restoration process with these artisans but also writing this post. Several locals I know here didn’t even know this work was being done in Cosenza, let alone, the State Archives.


  3. This type of painstaking work is so valuable. I’m always amazed when we saw centuries-old documents that they are still in existence. It’s incredible that someone hundreds of years ago didn’t just think it was worthless and throw it all out. So glad they didn’t.

    Liked by 6 people

  4. I love the way Italians care for their art and their heritage. The are some of the finest artisans in the world. These people are artisans extraordinaire in their own right! Thank you for the post and the beautiful pictures!

    Liked by 5 people

    • Hi Valerie, very true and many thanks for your feedback.

      Art, artists, literature, history, and more are treasured by Italians and firmly in their psyche. An artist in Italy is revered, where sadly in Australia, sometimes I feel that artists are very much looked down on.

      Liked by 2 people

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