La Dolce Vita

Continued professional development (CPD) is very important when you are working as a book conservator, because there is always something to learn! Whether it’s a type of binding, a technique that you haven’t come across at an earlier date, or the chance to meet fellow conservators. If you are an accredited conservator working in Ireland, CPD is a significant activity used to maintain your accredited status. This summer both Julia Poirier and Dorothea Müller had the opportunity to undertake training at the Montefiascone Conservation Project in Italy, as part of their CPD. The Project was originally conceived in order to raise money to save the virtually derelict late medieval library of Cardinal Barbarigo and, thanks to the tireless work of Project Director Cheryl Porter, it has now been running for over 25 years.

31st July- 4th August, Dorothea’s experience:

In the first week of August I attended the course titled An Italian fifteenth century binding. The course tutors were Jim Bloxam and Shaun Thompson from the Conservation and Collection Care Department at Cambridge University Library and Dr. Alison Ohta, director of the Royal Asiatic Society in London.

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The upper board (left), and lower board (right) of the finished model.

During the course we recreated the binding of Manuscript CUL Add. 8445, a copy of Cicero’s Topica (circa 1480) from the collection of Cambridge University Library. It has a contemporary binding with interesting structural features, including a covering of leather over beech boards. The binding has the addition of intricate blind and gold tooling, showing the influence of Near and Middle Eastern bindings.

Working in the beautiful Montefiascone Seminary we sewed our textblock on split alum-tawed calfskin supports with a packed straight sewing. Next we created our endbands with a core also made of tawed calfskin. The wooden boards were shaped into a cushion form and recesses were made for the sewing supports and the strap attachment. We attached the boards by gluing the sewing and endband supports down and fastening them with brass nails.

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Sewing of the textblock on a travel sewing frame made with two clamps and a metal rod; and the sewn textblock with attached beech boards.

The book was fully covered in leather goatskin, with a strap made out of the same leather but with a parchment centre. The leather above the headband was tucked in to form an endcap and the spine was left hollow.

To save time on this busy course, the tooling for the central decoration was done with a single brass plate rather than individual tools so that we could instead concentrate on painting it with lapis lazuli and shell gold diluted in gum Arabic and water in equal parts. We then added the border, which was cold tooled using two hand tools, a bar and an arc. The border was framed with double lines made using a small bone folder. For the spine we used a fillet with double lines in a geometric pattern. The foredge clasp was made of brass and was trimmed to shape and rolled by hand before finally being fitted to the book once the tooling was complete.

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Polishing the brass clasp; and tooling the leather using a template and two hand tools- one arc, and one bar.

The workshop further developed my skills in bookbinding, as the complex binding combined so many different techniques, including wood and metal work, hot and cold tooling, and painting on leather.  Apart from the practical work, the presentations given during the theoretical part of the course also provided participants with a lot of background information about this particular kind of binding which will certainly be of use as I return to the studio.

2017 Montefiascone Week II Italian 15th-c. Binding Ohta Bloxam Thompson class photo copy 2

Participants and teachers at the end of a successful week.

The Montefiascone Conservation Project provides an excellent place to learn more about historic bindings, while also helping to preserve a local book collection. I am grateful to ICRI for the funding which made my attendance possible. It was a brilliant experience and I would love to come back to the Summer School in the following years!

14th– 18th August, Julia’s experience:

I was extremely lucky to attend the final week of the 2017 Montefiascone Conservation Project, and took part in the workshop taught by Marco di Bella and Nikolas Sarris, on the Ethiopic binding structure and a conservation variation, which they devised.

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The finished Ethiopian conservation structure, and parchment satchel.

While working in Ethiopia on the Ethio-SPaRe project with Hamburg University, Marco and Nikolas have observed and recorded many characteristics of the Ethiopian binding structure, some of which they adapted and re-used for the conservation of a large Ethiopian manuscript from the church of ʿrom Qirqos (UM-018). They have found these adaptations to be historically accurate and yet structurally suitable for the conservation of this material.

During the week-long workshop we made two book models. One was a historical model, using known and characteristic features of Ethiopian bindings and the second one was an adapted conservation structure. We also got to make a traditional parchment satchel for one of the models.

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Covering a model of a traditional Ethiopian binding; and the class at work in the Seminary.

Needless to say, we were kept busy and many an afternoon was spent in the lovely, high ceiling room at the Seminary, overlooking the Italian hills on one side and the old crumbling village on the other. Both the teachers were very knowledgeable and keen to share and demonstrate each step of the process; the overall atmosphere in the classroom was serene and this made for a very pleasant experience.

I particularly loved preparing the leather endbands and sewing them onto the textblock. The blind tooling we added was done using real Ethiopian tools. The tutors bought them in a market in Ethiopia dedicated to all things book related. What a wonderful sight it must have been!

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Attaching endbands; and tooling the model using real Ethiopian hand tools.

Although a lovely and fun experience, this workshop was a prime example of how re-creating and understanding the functionality of a traditional book structure has a direct link to contemporary conservation practices which informs our work on historical bindings.

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Sewing the conservation structure with four needles!

I learned a great deal in those five days and could not recommend attending the Montefiascone summer school enough. The Chester Beatty Library is the custodian of a large number of Ethiopian manuscripts and, whilst the large majority of them are in stable condition, being more familiar with their structure will help us to assess their preservation needs more sensitively in the future.

Dorothea Müller & Julia Poirier

 

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Recreating the Medieval Palette: a workshop in Montefiascone

In July this year I had the opportunity to attend the Recreating the Medieval Palette workshop taught by Cheryl Porter in the picturesque town of Montefiascone, Italy. The five-day workshop consisted of lectures during the morning, followed by practical sessions of paint and ink making in the afternoon. The workshop allowed the members of the group to gain a deeper understanding of the history, chemistry and use of pigments that were produced during the medieval era, with a focus on European and Islamic manuscript art.

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Left: Cheryl Porter lecturing. Right: A view of Lake Bolsena from outside the classroom.

During the workshop we studied two groups of pigments; organics such as indigo and madder, and inorganics such as gold and lapis lazuli. Inorganic pigments are further separated into natural or synthetic. Some synthetic pigments include vermillion, lead white, red lead and lead tin yellow.  We also had the opportunity to study inks including iron gall ink and carbon ink.

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Left: Participants preparing the wonderful blue pigment lapis lazuli. Right: Experimenting with different inks, using a quill of course!

To create a colour for painting, the chosen ground pigment was firstly mixed with a small amount of water using circular motions in the shape of a figure-of-eight, to create a thick paste. At this stage the pigments were ground to the required particle size; some pigments need to be finely ground while others lose their colour if they are ground too much. Following this, a binding agent was added to the paste, to bind the pigment particles together and to help the pigment stick to the painting surface. In the workshop we tested a variety of different binding agents including egg white, egg yolk, and tree gums.

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Left: mixing egg yolk with Vermillion to produce a beautiful red colour. Right: the binding agent Gum Arabic.

For the medieval artist, understanding materials was a huge part of their knowledge and learning; they needed to know where to buy materials, how to make paint, how to apply their paints to specific supports such as plastered walls or parchment, and learn the skills necessary to determine their quality. For conservators it is useful to have an understanding of pigments and their chemistry to be able to make informed decisions when treating pigmented works of art.

I found it particularly useful to learn about the binding agents used in pigments. At the Chester Beatty Library I have been conserving a collection of Indian miniature paintings, which have particular problems with the lead white pigment flaking. Lead white was one of the most important pigments in the history of painting as it has wonderful density and whiteness; it was the best pigment for creating highlights. Chalk and bone were other options for white but they were often used as mixers only and their opacity was nowhere near as good as that of lead white.

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Left: Experiments using lead white. Centre: Adding water to ground malachite before the binding agent. Right: Grinding prepared pigment using a muller.

During the workshop I had the chance to prepare lead white and immediately I could see some of the difficulties in working with it. Firstly, most pigments are mixed with a small amount of water to create a smooth consistency before adding the chosen binder. However, as lead white is insoluble in water, this proved to be rather challenging- mixing it with a binding agent was more successful in creating a thick paste. Due to the density of the lead white pigment, large amounts of gum were added to create a smooth texture to paint with. The heavy lead and the large amount of gum Arabic binder added to the pigment often result in the flaking of lead white pigments on manuscripts. A new awareness of the historical and chemical problems with lead white has informed my understanding of the manuscripts I have been treating at the CBL. I now understand that many other pigments used in manuscripts were likely to have been mixed with lead white to create lighter colours, one of the reasons there are often problems with other colours flaking.

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Top: Seed Lac. Bottom: Stick lac.

Learning more about insect colours was really interesting for me too (I am fascinated with bugs). One example is red lac, which is an organic pigment made from a secretion of the Kerria lacca or Coccus lacca insects that live on the ficus tree  and are native to India and South-East Asia. The word lac comes from the Sanskrit word meaning 100,000 due to the number of insects that live together. The insects secrete a waxy resin which can be harvested from the branches of the tree. This is referred to as stick lac.

Lac was an expensive dye used in ancient India, China and Syria, and then used in Western Europe by the Romans. It was often used as a lake and recipes are found extensively in the 14th century. The same material was also used for shellac and varnishes. Conservators must consider several factors when dealing with lac in manuscripts; the colour is very sensitive to pH as well as moisture. Additionally the red lac colour reacts to changes in temperature.

Unfortunately, very few organic colour keep their brightness as they tend to fade; also, they could only be used in season. Artists solved some of these problems by making clothlets. The process involved squashing the insects or plants until a juice was produced and then soaking up as much colour as possible with small pieces of cloth that were dipped into the extract. The cloth was left to dry and the process was repeated many times to get a saturated colour. When ready to use, a small piece can be cut off the clothlet and soaked in warm gum, which bleeds out the colour. Clothlets were fine for the manuscript painter’s needs, however they were not so good for an easel painter or someone who needed more bulk or covering power.

By the 14th century there was a technological leap and the most common way to preserve colours was to create a powder pigment from the colour juice or dye, which is called an organic lake pigment. The juice produced from the plant or insect could be poured onto chalk and then stored as a powder.

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Left: Preparing a lac lake. Right: a small bottle of lac lake pigment.

The opportunity to attend this workshop in a beautiful part of Italy has been a fantastic learning experience for me. I was able to develop my knowledge of pigments to a much higher level and Cheryl’s lectures and instructions for making pigments and inks were not only informative but also a great deal of fun. As a variety of professionals attended the course including artists, conservators, students and historians, I felt I was able to exchange knowledge with other participants and learn more about the way in which this workshop was going to aid their work. By the end of the week, I had created samples on Islamic paper, European cotton paper and sheep parchment, which I will use as a reference guide when looking at pigments in manuscripts in the future.

I would like to thank the Zibby Garnett Travel Fellowship and the York Foundation for Conservation and Craftsmanship for generously providing funding to attend this workshop.

Puneeta Sharma, Heritage Council Intern in Paper Conservation