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March 5th , 2014 → 11:52 pm @ // No Comments


An article by: Flavio Marzo


image003Palazzo Vecchio,  the 14th Century City Hall

one of the historical buildings where the preservation classes are held

San Gemini Preservation Studies is a summer field school that organizes lectures, research, fieldwork, workshops and fieldtrips in the disciplines of historic preservation, restoration and conservation. It is located in Central Italy in the city of San Gemini in Umbria. The program is a collaboration between scholars from various international universities and renowned institutions and local preservation groups, fostering a multidisciplinary approach to historic preservation and all the academic activities are held in English.

Two years ago a new course on the history of book structures and their conservation was added to the curricula to complement an already existing program on the restoration of paper in books and archival documents.

This course was tutored by me, Flavio Marzo. I am an ICON Accredited book conservator at the moment, managing the conservation studio that has been created at the British Library for the British Library/Qatar Foundation partnership. I have been working in London since 2005 after moving from Italy where I graduated in book and paper conservation in 1999 in Spoleto.

The course I was asked to prepare for the San Gemini Preservation Studies is an intensive month long program on the history, technology  materials and conservation  of book bindings in the western tradition.

The aim of the course is to offer an exhaustive overview of what book conservation and book history is to people from different backgrounds related to or interested in books and their care.

The physicality of books is still perceived today as a secondary feature of book collections and not yet a priority in many institutions hosting libraries or in institutions running trainings on conservation/preservation issues. An important goal of our program is to teach our students to understand that books, their materials and technology, are cultural objects that carry valuable information that both support our understanding of the texts they transmit as well as having their own independent cultural and historical value.



Morning theoretical sessions are supported by video and audio material specifically prepared for the course

The course starts by studying the structure the materials and the historical evolution of the codex in Western Europe and the Mediterranean World from its appearance in the middle ages to the 19th Century.  A unique feature of this course is that students do not just study this evolution theoretically in the class room but also learn in great detail the structure and process of manufacturing these objects by creating by hand book facsimiles using several historically significant binding structures. These are high quality reproductions done with the same historical materials, tools and procedures traditionally used.

The use of different materials and techniques, and their impact on the final result, are examined and discussed along the way during the making of the dummies and compared with the known available literature sources.

In this first year we were able to realize four different facsimiles of historical sewing structures up to their full coverings and decoration. These were the unsupported sawing structure (Islamic/Byzantine style) binding, the Western Medieval binding, the floppy parchment binding and the modern case binding.


One of the students practicing the use of the book sewing frame

Unsupported sewing structure (Islamic / Byzantine style binding) 

Used typically from the Early Middle Age to the 18th Century in the Eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, commonly with paper book block.


The features are: the text block are sewn on 4 sewing stations. A spine lining of linen is applied to secure and stabilize the book-block. The “Islamic“ end bands (primary and secondary sewing) are made for the head and tail. The cover is made in two leather halves with a front flap.




Full leather unsupported sewing structure with front flap (Islamic style)

Western medieval style binding

Europe from 14th to 19th Centuries with parchment and paper book blocks.


Features: the book block is sewn on 3 double cord supports with packed sewing all along.  A parchment or linen spine lining is applied on the spine between the supports (panels). Western end bands with primary and secondary sewing around cord cores are made at head and tail. The supports are laced through the boards. Attaching the spine lining on the inside of the boards reinforces the board attachment.


Half leather and marbled paper binding sewn on single cord supports (XIX century style)

Limp parchment binding 

Sewing structure commonly found in the South Western Europe from 15th to 18th Century with book blocks in parchment and paper.


Features: The book block is sewn on 3 single alum tawed support with all along packed sewing.

 A spine lining of Japanese paper is applied to the spine to secure the book block. End bands with primary sewing on alum tawed cores are made.


A soft laced cover is applied to protect the book block.




Limp vellum binding with single alum tawed leather strip supports laced through the cover

Modern Western case binding, sewing on tapes

Used typically from the 18th and 19th Centuries with paper media.


Features:  The book block is sewn on 3 linen tapes with all along sewing. A linen cloth spine lining is placed to secure the book block. Two false end bands are applied to the spine at head and tail. A cloth case cover is made to cover the book block.



Sewing on two linen tapes to be finished with full cloth case cover

It was a real challenge, and I have to admit that I was positively surprised by the amazing commitment of my students and the quality of the final results.

 image017 image019

Blind tooled decoration of the leather spine


Working hard!

The second part of the course focused on conservation of books in libraries and archives. In this part of the course the workshop participates in the San Gemini Archives Restoration Field Project, which involves our students with original archival material both doing direct restoration of materials and non invasive conservative activities.

San Gemini offered a unique opportunity to work on the local historical archives, where an amazing historical collection of manuscripts and printed books is kept and preserved. The oldest documents go back to the late 14th Century. Perhaps more remarkable about this small archive is that it has an amazing collection of original bindings. Unlike archives of wealthier towns, where the bindings were regularly replaced, San Gemini has many of the original bindings. We find among these bindings a very interesting variety of traditional “quick archival bindings” used to assemble loose leaf documents.


Students examining originals in the local library/archive

The work of the bookbinding students on original material was all of a non invasive conservative nature. It consisted of preparing detailed condition and structural assessments of some of the most interesting pieces present in the archive. Those items were analyzed and possible conservation treatment proposals were drawn. This practice demonstrated to be extremely useful because it gave to the students not only the opportunity to work along with professional conservators but also because it was the chance for them to see and recognize original material with the physical features practiced previously on the facsimiles.

After the assessments, different kinds of protective enclosures for library and archive material were made by the students, some to be kept with their own facsimiles and others, prepared with archival material, to be used for the housing of the original manuscripts previously analyzed.


Housing of original in custom made for flap folders (phase box)

Along with the visits to the local archive, all the different aspects of preventive and non-invasive conservation techniques were presented to the students in lectures and discussions. Environmental control practices, minimal and in situ interventive techniques, re-housing solutions and pest control monitoring exercises.  In the workshop preventive conservation trainings, such as handling of fragile books and documents, transportation and delivery methods,  ways to support and promote best work practices  in libraries and archives

As part of the San Gemini Archives Restoration Field Project students participated in the work of digitizing the historic archives by photographing the documents and processing the images as well as by developing and creating some of the tools needed to mitigate possible damage to the documents during the digitization processes, such as the cradles for the books to rest on as they are being photographed.  


Customized book cradle for supporting bound items during imaging processes

I was the lead faculty for the course for the entire month, but in order to provide different perspectives, colleagues from other English and Italian institutions were invited to teach specific topics, such as parchment conservation and box making techniques.

At the end of the month a visit to the Vatican Library conservation studio was organized. This trip to Rome gave the students the opportunity to speak to other book conservators in their working environment and to visit a fully equipped professional books, paper and parchment conservation studio.

I am obviously very happy about my experience but I am even more satisfied because of the feedback from my students. These were young students and professionals coming from completely different backgrounds with quite different expectations. To me it was important that everyone was able to gain a new perspective on library and archival material and that they gained new knowledge that was relevant for their own specific needs.

Some of the students will decide to follow the conservation profession path, others will use what they have learned to care for the collections for which they are responsible, while others will simply add a new skill to their academic curricula. The aim of this course is not necessarily to create new conservators, but to give new perception of books in their physicality, as functional, historical and cultural objects, as what is still the most reliable technology for long term storage of information, and what it means to care for them.  

For more information about the courses and how to book for the future classes go to https://sangeministudies.info

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San Gemini Preservation Studies
International Institute for Restoration and Preservation Studies

203 Seventh Ave
Brooklyn, NY 11215, USA
tel. 718 768 3508