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 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

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, ItalyDuring 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.

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 are gorgeous.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy
Note the two vertical areas of missing artwork where walls finished.

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.

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’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.

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 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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy
Pino demonstrates 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 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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy
Tragic – lost history

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy
Ancient leather binder

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.

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.

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy
Notary document c. 1772-1774

Restoration preliminary

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.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy
“Time and tide wait for no man” – Geoffrey Chaucer

Restoration process

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.

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

Book disassembling

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

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy
A later document – c.1800s

Washing pages

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.

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

Restoring pages

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 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.

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

Reassembling pages

Pages are reassembled and hand-sewn back together in small sections, then together into larger sections until the book is 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

Selecting covers

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.

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 although mostly animal skin – calf, lamb, kid.

State Archives, Cosenza, Calabria, Italy
Restored from the 1600s

Traditional material such as animal skin is still used today for an 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 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?

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 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.

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

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52 responses to “Restoration Love Affair with Medieval Books: State Archives, Cosenza”

  1. justhistoryposts Avatar

    This is fascinating, thank you for sharing. I never knew the process to restore old manuscripts, so I learnt a lot!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      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.

  2. da-AL Avatar

    love this!!! total book porn in so many ways LOL

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Ha, ha, too true! Thank you – loved my time at the State Archives and writing this post. 🙂

      1. da-AL Avatar


  3. Anasa Avatar

    Simply… wow!!!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Thank you!

      I had a great time during the tour then documenting this love affair. I need to return to the State Archives to do more family research.

      1. Anasa Avatar

        I love ancient books and documents, so I can imagine how amazing is to see the restoration and to do some research

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        So do I and so glad that this work is being carried out, albeit needs more funding to continue.
        These books are an accurate part of history through the ages and need to be preserved for current and future generations.

      3. Anasa Avatar

        Unfortunately in Italy culture is not considered a priority, so it is always a problem to find the money needed to restore o promote and mantain museums, galleries and artworks, books included.
        Anyway I totally agree that it is important to preserve them and I think also in schools they should sensibilize students to learn and appreciate history and ancient books and papers. In this way the future generations will be prepared and they will take care of those important documents, paying attention to the country and local history.

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Totally agree with you. Too much money is siphoned off into private pockets and doesn’t reach important restoration work, not only historical treasures, but also Italy’s infrastructure – thievery.

      5. Anasa Avatar

        Unfortunately yes, the level of corruption is high and the citizens and the cultural heritage are all the time at risk.

      6. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        This could be such a great country if the corruption didn’t oppress Italy so much.

      7. Anasa Avatar

        We are full of resources and we don’t know how to valorize, appreciate and protect them… this is sad

      8. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, we’re depressing ourselves tonight. 🙁

      9. Anasa Avatar

        …and it is not necessary, we shoul talk about nice things 🙂

      10. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Agreed 🙂

      11. Anasa Avatar

        I was sure 🙂 also because our posts are on happy mood

      12. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Thanks 🙂

  4. Aixa Avatar

    It’s so interesting to read about this process. So wonderful that some people are so dedicated to preserving history.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      I’m so thankful that this is happening and hope locals are also as it’s their history and family story. Although it’s sad, as many locals I’ve met, don’t know of this work in Cosenza.

      1. Aixa Avatar

        It’s funny how that happens….

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes, sad when people walk around with closed eyes.

  5. Laleh Chini Avatar

    Wow love it. Historical beauty, thanks for sharing ❤️

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Indeed it is Laleh. And to know that the history is being preserved, is excellent – although not fast enough as time is slowly winning.

      1. Laleh Chini Avatar

        Yes of course ❤️

  6. April Munday Avatar

    Thank you for sharing such an interesting and important process.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      My pleasure April. I thoroughly enjoyed the fascinating process (for me anyway).

      1. April Munday Avatar

        Yes, I would find it fascinating as well.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        I’m sure you would! Theses guys are unsung heroes in my eyes. 🙂

  7. gillmorris Avatar

    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

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Hi Gill, it was amazing!

      Funny, I did try and read the writing but of course, it’s impossible. Apparently the State Archives does have one or two staffers that can read this language, which extremely impressive. :-)x

      1. gillmorris Avatar

        It is very impressive! 🙂

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        Yes and only wish that there was more funding, as time is winning out on these treasured historical pieces.

  8. susielindau Avatar

    That is so intense!!!
    Did you put the privacy and cookie policy on your blog because you earn money from it or was it recommended? I haven’t added it yet…

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      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.

      1. susielindau Avatar

        I just talked to my daughter who works in web analytics. She said that having it means we’re complying with the GDPR. I just added it! Thanks!

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        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! 🙂

      3. susielindau Avatar

        I know!!! She is a wealth of information.

      4. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        I bet, you’re lucky. 😉

  9. LuLu B - Calabrisella Mia Avatar

    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!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      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.

  10. Patty Avatar

    What an amazing opportunity to watch this process up close. Thanks for sharing dear Nilla.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Yes it was and I am very lucky…but then again, we make our own luck sometimes. 😉 x

  11. Suzanne [globalhousesitterX2] Avatar

    Brilliant post, Nilla! It is important
    to highlight a skill that most people wouldn’t have much knowledge on how it’s used to restore our history! Ciao!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      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.

  12. the eternal traveller Avatar

    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.

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      Indeed but valuable history such as this in Italy isn’t discarded as it may be in some countries – thank goodness!

      1. the eternal traveller Avatar

        I think it is saved in many countries. We’ve seen very old documents on display in many museums and historic sites.

      2. Image Earth Travel Avatar

        That’s comforting to know. 🙂

  13. Valerie Cullers Avatar

    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!

    1. Image Earth Travel Avatar

      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.

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