Once you have been to Montefiascone, an Italian town in the province of Viterbo north of Rome, it is hard not to wish to go back again. Overlooking Lake Bolsena and perfectly located in Lazio, close to Tuscany and Umbria, Montefiascone is home to the Montefiascone Conservation Project. Set in the Seminario Barbarigo, the project was founded over 25 years ago by Cheryl Porter, who is now director of the Project. each year conservators, curators, art historians, bookbinders and enthusiasts from all over the world gather to take part in four courses related to the history of the book.
View from the Seminary in Montefiascone.
Chester Beatty Is 1550
This year I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a five-day course about Indo-Persian bindings, taught by Kristine Rose-Beers, with the assistance of Julia Poirier. Pursuing my wish to develop my career and gain more knowledge about non-Western bindings, the class was based on a model of Chester Beatty manuscript Is 1550, a 17th century Indian Qur’an.
The course was introduced by a lecture given by Dr Alison Ohta, Director of the Royal Asiatic Society in London. Alison guided us through a journey in bookbinding history, starting from Persia and moving to India, placing our manuscript in its historical context. Afterwards, Kristine took the lead and presented CBL Is 1550, to outline the specific characteristics of books bound on the Indian Subcontinent between 1500-1700. The study of these bindings is still in its initial stages, but Kristine shared her on-going research with us.
The practical part of the course focused on making a reconstruction of a traditional Indo-Persian binding structure, based on CBL Is 1550. Starting with a prepared textblock of 20 quires, the book was first sewn using silk coloured thread, following an all-along sewing pattern over leather thongs.
The spine was then reinforced with a textile lining, covering the full length of the spine. Islamic-style endbands were sewn over thin leather cores, using metallic threads for the decorative secondary endband alongside silk coloured thread.
Beginning the primary sewing.
The first line of secondary sewing.
Forming the chevron pattern.
Continuing to cover the endband core.
The completed chevron patterned endband.
The prepared boards, flap and foredge pieces were then cut to size, perfectly matching the textblock. Traditionally, pasteboards were often made from reused manuscript materials, layered until reaching the desired thickness. Leather for the cover was then prepared. We covered our boards in two pieces: one for the upper board, and a second for the lower board, the foredge piece and the envelope flap.
However, before attaching the boards to the textblock, the leather needed to be tooled. The tools used for this model are an exact replica of the tooling used on CBL Is 1550, and were beautifully crafted by Kevin Noakes. Taking advantage of the moisture in the leather immediately after covering, one square tool is repeatedly pressed in to the leather covers and envelope flap, creating delicate arabesques and almond shaped medallions. The foredge piece was decorated using a separate rectangular tool with a flower pattern.
Laminated boards in press
tooling completed KRB
Tooling in progress KRB
Once tooled, our leather could then be pared, turned-in, and the covers attached to the textblock. When the boards are attached to the book an overlap is created on the spine where the two layers of leather are adhered, one on top of the other.
Precision is key to achieving a perfect and functional binding. Traditionally, the leather used for these books was worked until it was paper-thin; turn-ins and overlaps were made invisible thanks to the bookbinder’s craftsmanship.
The board attachment was completed by adhering the spine lining and sewing supports to the inner part of the boards. After preparing and adhering colourful doublures, the last and perhaps best part of the binding could be carried out: covering our books with gold! Unfortunately, we had to resign ourselves to using fake gold, for ease and financial reasons. Nevertheless, combining painting and stippling techniques, the precious “metal” was not spared on our bindings. “Make it shine” seemed to be the only rule!
Montefiascone has again reached its goal: I learnt a lot about Indo-Persian bindings; I met professionals from abroad and caught up with old friends; all whilst enjoying wonderful discussions about bookbinding and practicing my skills. What else is left to say? Only see you again soon I hope, Montefiascone!
I wish to thank Cheryl Porter, Kristine Rose-Beers, Julia Poirier and Dr Alison Ohta for making this course come to life. I am grateful to the Institute of Conservator-Restorers in Ireland ICRI for their contribution to the funding of this course, which made my attendance possible.
Cécilia Mathieu, former Heritage Council Intern in Conservation (2016-17)