The manuscript conservators have been enjoying the chance to work on two autograph letters (i.e. documents in the composer’s handwriting) from Beethoven to his pupil and friend Ferdinand Ries in this, the 250th anniversary year of the composer’s birth. Both letters, dating from 1819 and 1822 respectively, are written with iron-gall ink on paper, and still show the creases and wax from when they were first folded up and sealed ready to be posted.
Conservation work was required to stabilise damage to the edges of the leaves and areas of loss where the corrosive ink had eaten through the paper support.
Repairs were carried out using tiny supports of fine (4gsm) Japanese paper coated with a remoistenable adhesive. This allowed us to minimise the amount of moisture we used whilst applying the repairs, an important consideration when dealing with manuscripts written in iron-gall ink.
Beethoven was a prolific correspondent and more than one thousand of his letters survive. The two examples to Ries in the Fitzwilliam Museum demonstrate the composer’s concerns around the business aspects of musical life: the need to make a living from publishing his works as widely as possible and the problems in getting them into print accurately. In the letter of March 1819, Beethoven writes that ‘it is hard to compose almost entirely for the sake of earning one’s daily bread.’ The letter of July 1822 demonstrates Beethoven’s concern to sell the Op. 110 and 111 piano sonatas (rather untruthfully described as ‘really not very difficult’!) to a London publisher for £26, but signals his intention to make a deal with a German publisher for the same material. At this time there was no copyright law to prevent the same composition being published simultaneously in different countries by different publishers, and the extra income from multiple sales was attractive.
Beethoven autographs were sold off after the composer’s death and collected as souvenirs. Our collection also contains two leaves of autograph music manuscript by Beethoven, which were once part of the sketchbooks he kept to record his musical ideas. It is interesting to see how all these documents have been treated after Beethoven’s death, when they changed from being working texts or scores to mementos. The letter of 1822 was mounted between glass and framed, while the 1819 letter is only part of a much longer list of corrections Beethoven needed to have made to the London edition of the ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonata. (The other leaves are now in a collection in Germany.)
In more recent times, the music autographs were conserved by the famous Cockerell Bindery in Grantchester. The single leaves which were removed from the original sketchbooks soon after Beethoven’s death were mounted in larger sheets of paper to protect them from direct handling during use, then bound in two slim volumes covered with the instantly recognisable Cockerell marbled paper.
During our treatment, we were keen to maintain the ephemeral nature of the letters by making subtle repairs and providing good-quality archival folders for them, rather than mounting them permanently as leaves of a book.
Two of the autograph sketches, for the ‘Moonlight’ and ‘Hammerklavier’ Sonatas respectively, the two letters described here, and Beethoven’s life mask and pocket watch have just gone on display in Gallery 3 as part of the 250th anniversary celebrations.
The Fitzwilliam Museum holds an exceptional collection of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, representing all major schools of European illumination from the ninth to the sixteenth century. In the last decade, hundreds of volumes have benefited from interdisciplinary study undertaken as part of two ongoing projects, Cambridge Illuminations and MINIARE.
In this context, the Fitzwilliam’s scientific team recently analysed some fifteenth-century English manuscripts in order to investigate the illuminators’ materials and techniques. Among them, we took a close look at a volume which attracted our attention for its dimensions, only about 10 x 7 x 3 cm! (Fig. 1).
The manuscript (MS 2-1967) is a Book of hours dating to c. 1420, written in Latin on 184 folios of parchment. It contains seven historiated initials, numerous minor decorated initials, pen-work infills of different colours, and borders with golden ivy leaves and coloured acanthus leaves (Fig. 2). Most folios display some level of degradation, in the form of darkening of the red-orange areas and flaking gold leaf, which has significantly changed the original appearance of the decorated borders.
The results of the technical investigation revealed a rich palette, which includes lead white, carbon black, vermilion red, and red lead. The latter has often degraded, especially in the borders, and now appears black. An organic red dye was used to paint pink and red passages, whereas a purple dye was employed for lilac pen-work infills surrounding small gilded initials and to rule the pages.
Ultramarine is the main blue pigment used within the illuminations and the text, e.g. to paint all the blue garments and the acanthus leaves. Interestingly, XRF analysis revealed that the ultramarine employed for the small initials within the text contains more calcium than other blue areas analysed. Calcium may derive from calcite, one of the most common minerals associated with the natural stone lapis lazuli, from which ultramarine is made. Its presence may suggest the use of a low-quality ultramarine, prepared or sourced differently than other batches of the same pigment1.
Blue azurite mixed with lead white was found only in small passages, such as the light blue armours of the soldiers witnessing the resurrection of Christ on fol. 40r (see Fig. 2). Azurite was also mixed with an earth pigment to obtain the dark green used in the foreground of all scenes depicted in the historiated initials analysed. An earth pigment, mixed with various compounds, also yielded yellow and brown hues.
A copper-based compound was employed to obtain the bright green leaves of the borders. Its reflectance spectral signature most resembled that of a mineral compound – such as malachite or a copper sulphate – rather than a synthetic product, such as Verdigris.
Gold was found to be used as shell gold (i.e. powdered gold used as ink or paint) and as gold leaf (i.e. gold beaten into thin sheets), which was laid over a raised white ground. Lastly, iron-gall ink, containing copper and zinc, and red vermillion were used in the text.
Along with the imaging and spectroscopic techniques listed above, microscopic observation helped clarify the illuminator’s painting techniques. Flesh tones were painted using lead white, in addition to a copper-containing compound, an iron-oxide pigment, and small amounts of a calcium-based pigment (such as chalk or gypsum). Outlines and facial features were likely to have been drawn with iron-gall ink; lips, cheeks, and noses were enriched with dabs of red lead, and highlights were then added using lead white.
Among the materials detected, two are of particular interest: the copper-containing mineral used for bright green areas, and ultramarine. Both pigments are not commonly encountered in fifteenth-century English manuscripts, which often contain Verdigris and azurite2 instead. Ultramarine remained the standard blue pigment used by illuminators until the late thirteenth century, when it was replaced by azurite, possibly due to the disruption of trade routes between Europe and Asia – the primary source of this pigment – after the disintegration of the Mongol Empire3. The extensive use of precious ultramarine within the manuscript therefore raises questions about the context of its production and the patron’s social status, potentially suggesting a prestigious commission. Additionally, observation under magnification revealed the artist’s ability to portray different expressions and ultimately suggest emotions, such as joy (Fig. 4), astonishment (Fig. 5) or sorrow (Fig. 6), in very tiny faces – they are only a few millimetres long!
Overall, the results of the analyses allowed us to gain insight into the material choices made by a fifteenth-century English illuminator to enrich a book of private devotion. In addition, they will broaden knowledge about English manuscripts produced in that century which have not yet benefited from in-depth examinations.
Even if at first glance the manuscript seemed easy to handle and examine, and the original palette easy to identify, this research taught us that sometimes small objects contain unexpected treasures!
Osticioli, I. , N.F.C Mendes, A. Nevin, F. Gil, M. Becucci, E. Castellucci, ‘Analysis of natural and artificial ultramarine blue pigments using laser-induced breakdown and pulsed Raman spectroscopy, statistical analysis and light microscopy’, Spectrochimica Acta Part A 73, 2009, 525-531.
Panayotova, S., L. Pereira-Pardo, P. Ricciardi, ‘Illuminator’s Materials and Techniques in Fourteenth-century English Manuscripts’, in Manuscripts in the Making: Art and Science, eds. S. Panayotova and P. Ricciardi, London and Turnhout: Harvey Miller/Brepols, 2017, vol. 1, 46-64.
If a friend asked me to sum up in brief my first month at work in the Scientific Laboratory of the Fitzwilliam Museum, I would reply, “It has been a crash course in technical analyses of magnificent artworks!” I kick-started the New Year by moving to Cambridge to begin a fellowship as a Research Assistant of the MINIARE Project – Manuscript Illumination: Non-Invasive Analysis, Research and Expertise. Since 2012, the project has carried out scientific investigation of the materials and techniques used to make medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, while studying the cultural, historical and art-historical context of production.
During the first two weeks, I had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of the rich and diverse collections that the Fitzwilliam Museum houses, crossing the Art History timeline – from ancient Egyptian coffins to French impressionists – simply by walking through the galleries. Among the collections, I became especially acquainted with the Western illuminated manuscripts, which are the focus of in-depth study and conservation for the Department of Manuscripts and Printed Books. Curators and conservators of this Department introduced me into the world of ancient books, making me aware of the conservation needs of unique and fragile artworks, how to choose appropriate temperature, humidity, and lighting conditions, as well as how best to handle the manuscripts before and during the analyses.
Coincidently, the next three weeks fell at the moment visiting researcher Dr Stefano Legnaioli from ICCOM-CNR of Pisa, Italy, came to the Fitzwilliam Museum to carry out analysis of selected objects through Raman spectroscopy. Among the scientific techniques that can be used to examine artworks non-invasively (i.e. without taking samples or touching the artwork’s surface), Raman spectroscopy is one of the most reliable to identify artists’ materials. To enable precise identification, more information was also collected using additional analysis techniques available in the Museum’s Analytical Lab.
I assisted with the installation of a multi-analytical ‘mobile’ laboratory and helped Dr Legnaioli and the Museum’s Research Scientist, Dr Paola Ricciardi, in performing the analyses. In the brief time available, I was fortunate to be able to work on a ninth-century French manuscript, a lavish copy of the Astronomicum Caesareum printed in the mid-sixteenth century, Corpus Christi College’s Grant of Arms, a group of sixteenth-century Italian Dogali (ducal documents from the Republic of Venice), as well as on some of the Museum’s fan collection.
Our daily protocol included multispectral imaging and spectroscopic analyses: X-ray fluorescence (XRF), reflectance spectroscopy in the ultraviolet-visible-shortwave infrared range (FORS) and Raman. The combination of these analyses revealed underdrawing, changes in the composition, retouching and ultimately the nature of the vibrant and rich colour palettes. The scientific data that we have collected can support other researchers to shed light on the objects’ authorship, style and geographic origin, and ultimately to educate the visitors on how the artefacts were made.
This intensive experience enhanced my knowledge of illuminated manuscripts greatly, and above all, it taught me how to study this type of artefact with a scientific approach. I learned that, even if at first glance a colour palette seems to be easy to identify, analysis can reveal unexpected and unusual results. I understood early on that science cannot answer all the questions that arise at the beginning of research; however, this is a challenge rather than a failure. It may be that we need to find or develop a new protocol, perform other analyses, discuss the problem with curators, or even to leave the question open and unanswered. I loved doing this cross-disciplinary research because, like a jigsaw puzzle, all the various chemical, physical and historical information can be put together to resolve the manuscripts’ mysteries.
I have just completed the first month of my fellowship at the Fitzwilliam Museum and I look forward to facing new challenges and studying in-depth the art of illumination. With plenty of work to do this year, I am sure there will be new scientific discoveries to write about in future blog posts! I would like to thank the Zeno Karl Schindler Foundation for supporting and funding the MINIARE fellowship, as a remarkable experience for my professional and personal growth.
The Founder’s Library at the Fitzwilliam Museum houses an extraordinary collection. It charts the history of the printed book, from the first days of printing in the mid fifteenth century to artists’ books and productions of the private presses today. We are fortunate to have a copy of the Astronomicum Caesareum, one of the high points of sixteenth-century printing, as part of the collection. Printed in 1540 in Ingolstadt at the press of the author, Peter Apian (1495-1552), this magnificent book was dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and his brother, Ferdinand. It was designed to make astronomy accessible to those who did not have a high level of mathematical education. The reader is provided with volvelles – moving dials of paper attached to the leaves – throughout the book, the paper instruments allowing astronomical phenomena to be calculated.
Apianus’s work is based on the Ptolomaic system of astronomy, where the earth is assumed to be at the centre of the universe. However, within three years of publication, Copernicus (1473-1543) revolutionised thinking about the universe by suggesting that the planets orbit the sun. By the seventeenth century, Kepler (1571-1630) described the Astronomicum Caesareum as an elaborate waste of effort! Although scientific thinking has moved on, the book remains a superb artistic achievement: the typography includes a mirror-image font and decorative lay outs, the volvelles and decorative woodcut initials glow with rich hand colouring, and some of the pastel shades of paint are embellished with tiny golden particles, which sparkle in the light as the leaves are turned.
The book had suffered from damp and insect attack in the past and was repaired and rebound, probably in the early nineteenth century. Repair patches added at that time were very stiff and had caused the original leaves to crack along the edges of the old repairs. Over-large patches also obscured text. The binding was also breaking down, with the thin leather on the spine crumbling and the sewing threads either breaking or tearing holes in the spinefolds.
Over the course of the last year, the leaves of our copy of the Astronomicum have undergone extensive conservation work. This involved the careful removal of the old binding and heavy repair patches, the reduction of disfiguring water stains, and the repair of damage using Japanese handmade papers to make sympathetic infills.
Our copy is one of the deluxe versions printed on very high quality paper made from rags and is remarkably well preserved. It is still possible to see the marks of the rope over which the wet paper was hung to dry, as well as blind impressions of type in blank areas, added to control pressure on the paper during the printing process. These un-inked letters are known as ‘bearer’ type.
Recently, a team of historians of science joined us in the library to examine and discuss the book, as well as future possibilities for interpretation and digital access. Our scientists are also analysing the pigments in the colouring, and we hope to build up a more detailed picture of the materials and techniques used to make an extraordinary book.
Each leaf has now been digitised and we hope to be able to present the book and our research work on it in digital form in the future for new audiences to enjoy. The next stage of the project is to make a new binding for the book – keep a look out for a further blog post when the work is finished.
Henry VIII of England continues to attract attention. This time it is not about one of his many wives but about a book he wrote, the very book which granted him the title of Defender of the Faith, a title still assigned to British Sovereigns today. Henry VIII was a highly educated man and in the years before he turned against the Pope and the Church of Rome, he wrote a treatise called The Defence of the Seven Sacraments against Luther. The book is a theological treatise, dedicated to Pope Leo X, defending the Catholic Church against Martin Luther’s attack on Indulgences, and was printed in London in 1521.
The Fitzwilliam Museum’s copy
The Fitzwilliam Museum’s copy of the book is one of 27 copies that were sent to Rome by Henry to be distributed among the Cardinals of the Church after approbation by the Pope1. As we are currently working towards an exhibition on Money, Image, and Power in Tudor and Stuart England (spring 2019), the book was brought up to the conservation studio, and this is when the exciting detective work started. In fact, the book has a number of interesting physical features which I tried to unravel, helped by my curatorial and conservation colleagues Suzanne Reynolds and Edward Cheese, in order to choose the most appropriate conservation treatment and extract as much information as possible about its history.
The authentic features
I was able to validate several authentic features of our copy, the large signature of Henry VIII at the beginning and end of the text being the most obvious evidence. The sixteenth-century full leather binding is blind-stamped with the Royal arms and the Tudor rose in a double panel. These stamps are attributed to the London binder John Reynes2 and prove the authenticity of the binding. The title page is decorated with an elaborate woodcut border designed by Hans Holbein (1497-1543) which has been recorded by Gordon as part of the original features of the first edition of the treatise3.
Other features bear witness of the life of this copy and tell us about its owners, its condition and its uses.
Signs on the binding
The front board shows an inscription that has been scratched in the leather. We can read REX ANGLIAE IN LVTH meaning “The King of England against Luther”. The foredge has been inscribed with the title, along with an intriguing sign. This symbol is hard to identify and we came up with two suggestions of what it could be: a cross-bearing orb or a pomegranate. Please get in touch if you have seen this sign used on other books – there are possible links to Queen Catherine of Aragon.
Inside the book
The pages have been numbered by hand, and the running titles have also been added by hand by a reader comfortable with the Latin of the text, using an elegant humanistic script. This reader also annotated the text extensively.
The front pastedown
A nineteenth-century manuscript note on paper is adhered to the front pastedown. It is signed by Samuel Woodburn (1780/5-1853, art dealer and expert on Old Master Drawings) who explains that he bought the book from Signor Romanis at Rome in 1818. Napoleon’s invasion of Rome (1798) had a powerful impact on the Vatican Library as well as its manuscripts. Book dealers coming from England and other countries followed the army and acquired many books and illuminated cuttings. If Samuel Woodburn’s note is true, the book was purchased by Signor Romanis when several of the books belonging to the late Pope were sold by order of the French Army.
Remains of a former reback
One final feature. When removing the existing leather spine repair, blind-tooled brown leather remains were found underneath the original leather along the joints, suggesting a former reback. The patterns that are still visible indicate that the leather came from a fairly large late fifteenth – or early sixteenth-century binding with a central panel of triple-lined lozenges framed by foliate ornaments. The stamp used for these ornaments and the style of the layout is very similar to one recorded by Basil Oldham in English Blind-Stamped Bindings4, confirming the date of the re-used leather.
Let’s get on with some conservation treatment now!
The book was in fairly poor condition. It had been rebacked at least twice and the last reback was creating tensions to the book. Boards were distorted, corners were worn, the front endleaves were detaching, the large strip of glassine paper supposed to support the title page was falling off and the pages were dirty and torn around the edges. There was definitely room for improvement!
Here are the illustrated stages of the conservation treatment:
Removing the current reback, removing the thick layer of hard animal glue from the spine, and reinforcing the sewing with Japanese paper linings in the panels and linen braids over the sewing supports.
The glassine paper was removed mechanically.
Tears were repaired and losses filled with toned Western and Japanese papers.
Corners were reinforced and reconstructed. They were then covered with toned archival leather.
The waste parchment guard hooked around the front endpapers was cleaned so that the thirteenth-century manuscript writing could be revealed.
Margins were cleaned with a smoke-sponge. New back-bead endbands were sewn to reinforce the sewing. The detached leaves were guarded with Japanese paper strips and sewn back on to the textblock over the extended sewing supports using linen thread.
Boards were re-attached using the extended sewing supports. Finally, the book was rebacked with toned archival leather and housed in a bespoke drop-spine box.
Thanks to this collaborative detective work and the conservation treatment that followed, the book is now stable and well documented, available to researchers and ready to go on display!
Special thanks to Assistant Keeper Suzanne Reynolds for all her help in untangling the many mysteries of the book and bringing academic support to the project.
As part of Cambridge’s Festival of Ideas 2017, I took part in a series of behind-the-scenes talks on how we investigate the ‘true’ nature of museum objects. As the event was so successful and attendees showed a lot of interest in the subject, this blog post is aiming to share the story of the objects I discussed on that occasion.
What secrets or lies can we unveil, by which means can we do that, and how far can we go into our understanding of past practices? Some objects lead us into exciting journeys and this is the case of two manuscripts fragments from our collection (MSS 293a and 293b1).
These two beautiful and quite peculiar illuminated fragments come from the Royal Monastery of St Thomas in Avila, Spain, and were presented by the Friends of the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1918. By taking different approaches – those of a curator, a conservator and a research scientist – to investigate the truth of these objects, we can retrace their story and reveal some of their secrets.
Historical context and iconography
The description of the image is the first step in our investigation and already gives a lot of information. First we can see that the main part of each image is a large letter: we can identify an ‘M’ and a ‘D’. These are enclosed within composite floral borders containing birds, animals and grotesques, as well as the arms of Castile and Aragon and the devices of the Spanish sovereigns Ferdinand and Isabella, the yoke and the bundle of arrows respectively.
Questions arise already and we start wondering what text these two initials introduced, from which manuscript(s) the images were excised, and what is their context. The catalogue description 2 suggests that the initial ‘M’ would have introduced Psalm 131 (the first psalm for Thursday Vespers) and the initial ‘D’ would have introduced Psalm 114 (the first psalm for Monday Vespers). This type of initial, “shaped and surrounded by densely populated foliage on highly burnished gold grounds, contained within frames inscribed with phrases from the accompanying text”, is, according to our curator Dr Stella Panayotova, “representative of Castilian illumination of the last quarter of the fifteen century which agrees with the internal evidence of the royal arms and devices.” The presence of the arms of Castile and Aragon as well as Ferdinand and Isabella’s devices does indeed give us a lot of information about the time of creation of these images. The two kingdoms of Castile and Aragon were united by this royal couple in 1479; in 1492, the pomegranate (not present here) was added to the royal arms to mark the conquest of Granada. We can therefore conclude that these images were created between 1479 and 1492.
Looking more carefully, we notice the strange layout of the borders. We can see that some of the animals are upside down and some of the drawings are incomplete. We are also aware that this sort of image with such large borders so closely attached to the large initials on all four sides is not commonly seen in illuminated manuscripts. Also, we have two large initials but no other text, so we start asking questions about what happened to these objects and how and why such images came to look the way they do today. At this point we have to start looking ‘beyond’ the image, at the materiality of the object: what is it made of and how can we explain the size and composition of the images?
Last year MS 293a arrived at the conservation studio because it needed some treatment. The fragment was lined with cardboard which was acidic and causing tensions in the parchment. Both of these features were damaging the object.
When MS 293a arrived at the conservation studio I followed the usual starting procedure of figuring out what I was dealing with. The catalogue description of the object gave me a good idea of the date of the illumination fragment and its iconography, but very little was written about its materiality.
Using raking light was the most effective observation method to understand the composition of the object. We can see the texture of the surface, giving information about the thickness of the paint layers and the way gold was applied. Raking light also highlights the presence of separate pieces of parchment. So not only is this a fragment from an illuminated manuscript, but it is an assemblage, a collage of several fragments. This explains the very complex completed image, acting as an individual painting.
Cutting illuminated manuscripts to create new ‘beautiful’ images was a fairly common practice in the 19th century and demonstrates the changing attitudes towards illuminations over time. Mid-19th century revival of interest in Gothic art led to the invasive exploitation of illuminated manuscripts where illuminations were cut and reused in a different context and format: MS 293a was assembled to stand as a painting. It is, as Stella Panayotova writes in the catalogue of the COLOUR exhibition, “a damage inflicted upon illuminated manuscripts, motivated paradoxically, by admiration for them as works of art”.
As mentioned before, the collage was supported by an acidic cardboard. It had been glued with animal glue and stuck firmly onto the board.
The illuminated cutting is painted on parchment which is made of animal skin and is both a very durable but also very reactive material. Parchment becomes stiff over time and reacts hugely to the relative humidity of the surrounding air so tensions can appear when the parchment is forced into a certain shape. My task was to remove the backing and mount the object to keep it safe and stable.
I had to remove the backing board layer by layer in order to reduce the risk of distorting the illumination which could disturb the paint layers. During the process the collage was laid onto a large piece of felt so that the illumination was not crushed. A thin layer of paper was found at the back of the collage and was probably the sheet of paper on which the pieces of the collage were originally adhered. We decided to leave it in place in case removing it would loosen the pieces. However, getting so close to the back of the illumination was intriguing so we looked at the object with transmitted light (now that it was fairly thin) and were able to make out large black Gothic letters. These letters are written on the back of the initial fragment. This was a magical moment and confirmed that the initial belonged to a very large manuscript.
We had already so much information and could be fairly confident in attributing the illuminated initials to a Choir Psalter, written in Latin and originating from Avila in Spain in the late 15th century.
We also found out via observations under natural light and raking light that the collages were made of 8 fragments (MS293a) and 3 fragments (MS293b) respectively. Our curator was fairly confident in attributing the floral borders to the same illuminated manuscript as the initials. We could now go further in our understanding of the object and being able to reveal how the ‘artist’ who made the collage achieved the final composition. This is where our research scientist comes in.
Collaboration with Dr Paolo Romano and Claudia Caliri from the LANDIS Laboratory in Catania (LNS-INFN and IBAM-CNR), allowed us to analyse MS 293a with a cutting-edge macro-XRF scanner, which they shipped here all the way from Italy! The spectral images obtained were interpreted by our research scientist and here is what they revealed:
The elemental map for iron (Fe-K) shows the presence of iron in various areas. The obvious place where we can see iron is in the gilded areas because iron is a constituent of Armenian bole, which would have been used as the ground layer for the application of gold leaf. However, we can also see what appear to be letters throughout the centre of the image. By flipping the image over (see image below) and adjusting its contrast we realise that these are indeed letters, written in iron-gall ink on the other side of this parchment page. Careful observation allows us to start reading the text hidden behind the collage.
The false-colour elemental map for zinc, chromium and cobalt (in red, green and blue, respectively ) reveals the presence of elements, all of which are characteristic of ‘modern’ pigments. Combining this information with other analytical data, we can identify the presence of zinc white, cobalt blue, barium chromate and a chromium-based green, all of which were first manufactured in the first half of the 19th century. This information, together with the absence of any pigments manufactured after 1850, suggests that the collage was assembled, and the image retouched, probably in the 1840s, in line with the 19th-century practice of excising illuminations from manuscripts to create new art objects.
Collaboration between curator, scientist and conservator helped to retrace the origins and the story of these collages and to document them. These objects are new valuable objects, made of ancient valuable fragments. We won’t undo the collages because they document historic practice on top of being a new artwork. Besides, there is currently no parent manuscript so re-uniting the fragments is not possible – and if it was, digital methods could allow us to reunite fragments from all over the world by use of online digital tools, for example the IIIF (International Image Interoperability Framework). Separating the pieces could also damage the parchment and the paint layers, and having individual fragments without a specific place or use for them wouldn’t be appropriate.
Revealing the truths of an object is so important because we can’t undo what has been done for various reasons explained previously. However, we can document the object and share the information. One day, perhaps, through sharing information, we will find more related fragments that will feed into our understanding of the object itself and the historical practices involved and we may even be able to start reconstructing the illuminated manuscript that was once proudly standing in the Royal Monastery of St Thomas in Avila.
This cutting from our collection gives an idea of the scale of a Choir Plaster and how the fragments of the collage could have been laid out on a page. This is MS 197, from a 15th-century Italian Choir Book (see catalogued information’s here). We can see the large initial, the floral borders, the coat of arm and large black manuscript letters.
With special acknowledgement to Dr Paola Ricciardi, Fitzwilliam Museum’s Research Scientist, for her input with scientific research and imaging and for her help with co-writing this blog post.
In the summer I spent four brilliant weeks with the conservation team in Manuscripts and Printed Books. Edward, Gwendoline and all the staff at the Fitzwilliam generously gave their time and knowledge to make my placement at the Museum enjoyable and an invaluable experience as part of the MA conservation course that I am studying at Camberwell College of Art. I completed a number of practical projects, including rebacking of cloth case bindings and the repair of architectural plans of the Founder’s Library.
The architectural plans, mostly from 1847, were graphite and pen and ink on drafting paper – a transparent paper made by adding oil which, after many years, has degraded to make the drawings very fragile and brittle. This was a satisfying collection to work on as the drawings were taken off poor-quality backing paper, carefully flattened, and repaired with fine Japanese handmade paper. Finally, to make them easier to handle and visible on recto and verso, individual folders were made from Melinex®, an archival polyester film. For this I also got to learn to use some new pieces of equipment – the polyester sealing machine and ultra-sonic spot welder. With these I was able to make folders around the object, as you can easily seal as many sides around the enclosure as you need. It meant I could also get a wide enough border to prevent the corners of the drawings from being damaged in future. The ultra-sonic spot welder allows the old label to be displayed alongside the drawing in the same folder without the need for attachment to the Melinex®.
The Founder’s Library at the Fitzwilliam holds a wide variety of different bindings on rare examples of manuscripts and printed books. The cloth case binding rebacks I completed were for two volumes of the Arabian Nights Entertainment and an edition of Augustinus printed in 1490. Although all three bindings were nineteenth-century cloth case bindings, the damage and therefore the conservation treatment were each unique. I like the problem-solving element in taking a similar technique of creating a hollow-back binding to give durability and allow for the original spine to be put back in place, but taking different approaches depending on how he original structure was damaged and how that dictated access into the structure for repair with minimal disturbance to each binding. For instance, Volume II of the Arabian Nights had spilt endpapers making this an entry point to the spine whereas the endpaper joints in Volume I were in good condition so it was important to not damage these during treatment – access was through the spilt down the length of the cloth joint. The Augustinus had a whole piece of the spine detached and revealed a piece of printed paper used as a spine-lining that it was important to keep and protect in case it holds information worth future investigation.
Being in the studio meant that during the four weeks I was able to observe and learn from the diverse range of conservation treatments going on. Work on parchment was a new technique and material for me so I enjoyed being able to have a go at reproducing some historic and current repair processes. The area of printed books and manuscripts encompasses a range of different materials and techniques, with the additional consideration that bindings need to ‘work’ mechanically every time the volumes are consulted. I started a model example of a herringbone sewing: making this really helped me to understand how sewing on double cords works and locks each stitch in place for a very strong and flexible structure. As well as being ‘working’ objects, books and manuscripts are artefacts that need looking after and handling with respect. I think one of the factors in helping communicate this is the beautifully handcrafted bespoke cases and boxes made for items in the collection. The books need to fit exactly to protect them. The clam-shell box I made has double thickness on the walls making them very strong; lined with conservation board, they create a non-damaging environment within.
What made my placement particularly enjoyable was all the people who took the time to show me around and share their knowledge. I am grateful to have had the opportunity while in Cambridge to visit the wider conservation community there, from current students, Anna and Elisabeth, giving me a tour at the Hamilton Kerr Institute, to Jim and the team at the University Library showing me the many and varied conservation projects that they have going on, and to Bridget, Françoise and Claude at the Cambridge Consortium and Nicholas Bell at the Wren Library, Trinity College. I found the diversity of different projects being undertaken in all the conservation studios and treasures held in the collections fascinating.
Each of the departments at the Fitzwilliam also took time to show me the different projects that they have ongoing and their collections, from which a lot of exciting research is generated. It was good to see something of the day-to-day work of departments dealing with new acquisitions, items for loan and exhibition and challenges of storage and building constraints as well. I learnt a lot, and will continue to do so through my final year of study and beyond.
Finally I’d like to thank Edward Cheese and Gwendoline Lemée for making it an absolute pleasure to be in the conservation studio and taking the time to teach me many new skills. The experience went far too fast!
Books in a museum context have the particular challenge of being objects of study as well as objects of display. The beautifully decorated leather bindings which make the Founder’s Library such a grand historic interior also hold contents of great interest and therefore serve several purposes, both decorative and functional.
To commemorate the 400 years since the death of William Shakespeare, a small exhibition was put together last year at the Fitzwilliam Museum: ‘All the world’s a stage’: Shakespeare in Publication and Performance. Two of the books chosen1 to be displayed had loose or detached boards as well as worn corners and endcaps which would have affected their display. After consultation between the curator and the conservators, we decided to undertake conservation treatment firstly for the books to be displayed safely and look cared for but also, in a much bigger scale, to restore their flexibility and allow them to be consultated safely by readers.
Both books are second impressions of William Shakespeare’s work, printed in 1632. They are now in an early 19th century binding. The beautifully decorated bindings were covering a poorly made structure as some 19th century practices are known to put more importance into the aesthetic of the book rather than its mechanical function. The ’Russia calf’ leather used for the covering of the binding had become brittle over time due to its acidic nature. Joints are usually the first area to break down as they are subject to a lot of stress.
We had two weeks prior to the exhibition to restore and even improve the accessibility of the content of the books by re-attaching the loose boards in a flexible and durable way. Re-attaching boards can be done in many ways and these books provide a good example of two different techniques we use.
The possibility to lift the gilded spine or not usually determines which technique we will use. If the spine is fairly easy to lift without falling into pieces, we will go for a re-back2, otherwise, we will reduce the lifting to a minimum and insert small strips of cloth underneath patches of leather. For the first book, the spine could be lifted so we decided to do a re-back.
After lifting the leather spine from the book and cleaning the spine from residues of old brittle glue, a wide strip of aerolinen3 was adhered to the spine. The aerolinen was then stuck with paste and EVA4 in the previously split boards in order to re-attach them to the text-block.
The leather on the boards was lifted away along the spine edge and trimmed along the gold- tooled line. A hollow back5 made of Heritage Archival pHotokraft paper was adhered onto the spine and the book was re-backed with new toned leather.
The original spine was then re-adhered onto the book and the missing areas on the spine leather were filled with Japanese paper and toned with acrylic paint to match the leather on the spine.
This treatment should be very long-lasting as the joints are now supported with aerolinen and new leather. Endcaps have also been restored in the process of re-backing and the original spine is now well supported.
The second book was quite another story. The leather was too brittle for the whole spine to be lifted away without losing the decoration and the sewing was in good condition which means that the spine didn’t need to be treated. Therefore, the leather was only lifted along the edges of the panels to allow tabs of aerolinen to be adhered to the spine and onto the boards to form a strong but flexible attachment.
When these repairs were dry the original leather was readhered with a mixture of EVA and wheat-starch paste. The joints were then covered by a thin strip of Japanese paper6 to prevent slight cracks from developing. Paper repair patches were toned in situ using Golden’s acrylic paints and the whole binding was furbished with two light coats of Renaissance microcrystalline wax
This treatment is very efficient as it is much less time-consuming than a re-back but strong enough to hold the boards to the book when the rest of the binding is in good condition.
Both books have kept their aesthetical value which is extremely important in the context of historic libraries. They will still be able to fulfil their decorative role as well as being accessible and available for researchers and readers.
Books are something of an oddity in the context of a museum in that they are not only objects which we want to preserve for their historical significance but also machines which have a mechanical function to carry out every time a reader opens them. No one in his/her right mind would dream of cooking in a medieval pot or wearing a pair of eighteenth-century shoes – i.e. of using either object for its original function – but the medieval and eighteenth-century bindings in a library are expected to work to allow access to the texts they contain. Continued use, combined with the ageing of materials used in the construction of the bindings, eventually leads to boards becoming detached and sewing structures wearing to the point where they can break, so generations of bookbinders have repaired bindings as a large part of their work.
One of the incunabula (that is, books printed before 1500) in the Founder’s Library had been given a new spine in the late nineteenth century in order to reattach the front board. Unfortunately, the poor quality of the leather meant that the repair itself was deteriorating and the front board had become detached again. In addition, the previous repairer had used a large amount of hide glue on the spine of the book which prevented it from flexing. The result of this repair campaign was to give an early printed book a spine which would look much more appropriate on a nineteenth-century book. A large part of the interest of this binding was in what lay hidden beneath the previous repairs. As conservation work progressed, the book started to reveal elements of its making hidden for over a century.
On close examination at the bench, it soon became apparent that the sewing structure might well be original and that endbands of braided alum-tawed skin, typical of Germanic bindings of this period, may well have survived under the newer leather on the spine. In addition, a narrow line of parchment was just visible, extending beyond the edge of the nineteenth-century paper paste-downs (the sheets of paper pasted to the inner surface of both boards). Depressions in the pastedowns also suggested that the original pattern of the cutting for the foredge corners of the boards (the free corners on the opening edge of the boards) was of the ‘tongue corner’ type rather than the mitred type suggested by the nineteenth-century repair patches. The ‘tidying up’ by the last repairer seemed to be obscuring a great deal of fascinating information.
After discussions with the curators of the collection, we decided that the need for repair provided a good opportunity to examine the structure of the book further and that the nineteenth-century material could be removed, saving annotations on the newer paper endleaves and the labels for future reference. Unfortunately, the nineteenth-century leather on the spine and at the corners of the boards was far too degraded to save and crumbled into powdery flakes during attempts to lift it. However, when the leather and hide glue on the spine had been removed, it was exciting to find that the original sewing structure and the original braided endbands had survived in a surprisingly good state of preservation, so much so that the whole structure could flex in an excellent opening arch as the original binder intended.
Further investigation on the insides of both boards revealed that the original parchment board sheets were still in place and, further, that they were made from a recycled manuscript document which appears to have had at least six seals attached to it on parchment tabs in its original form – the slits for the tabs to pass through are clearly visible in the sheet on the back board (see the lower edge of the sheet in the image below).
With the leaves of the book flexing from the spine-folds once again, it was also easy to see that the centre of each section had been reinforced by the binder with a folded strip of parchment to help prevent the paper leaves from tearing around the sewing holes. The parchment strips are made from manuscript waste too, although it is not yet clear whether they are from the same document as the board sheets.
The approach to repairing the book was to follow binding techniques of the fifteenth century rather than to re-apply inappropriate nineteenth-century methods. The front board was reattached and the attachment of the back board reinforced with linen braids, secured to the original raised bands with helical stitches of linen thread. The ends of the braids were left long so that they could be frayed out and threaded though the boards next to the original sewing supports to form a sturdy attachment. A slotted loose linen spine-liner was also added to prevent the new leather spine from being adhered directly to the backs of the sections and to form new inner joints in the repaired binding. The lining was carefully cut to fit around the endbands, which remain exposed as the original binder intended.
New archival tanned calfskin was toned and pared to blend in with the original leather before being adhered with wheat-starch paste, again leaving the endbands exposed. The book was then put into a finishing press and strong cord was used to hold the leather tight to the spine and raised bands in the traditional manner during drying.
The corners of the boards were re-covered with patches of the same leather inserted under the original covering material so that the tongue corners are visible once more. When the new leather was dry, the flanges of the linen spine-liner were adhered to the insides of the boards under the lifted edges of the manuscript waste board sheets, which were in turn pasted back into position.
Following conservation and repair work, this book is in safe condition to be consulted by researchers in the Founder’s Library. The opening is greatly improved and many original features of the binding have been revealed for the first time in over a century, allowing the book to give us many more clues as to its making and provenance.
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