Posts with the tag: manuscripts

The Archivist’s Nook: Conservation in Rare Books

St. Jerome with lion, Epistolae, ca. 1400 (MS 168) Learn more about why Jerome is often pictured with a lion here.

Beginning last year, Special Collections staff began a process of reviewing Catholic University’s Rare Books collection for works facing conservation issues. With over 65,000 works in the collection, we had to focus on the most immediate concerns. Of particular interest was the manuscripts collection, which holds over 200 one-of-a-kind handwritten texts from the medieval to the early modern period, ranging from alchemy treatises to choral books.

After working alongside graduate students and faculty from the Department of Greek and Latin, our staff selected four initial works to send offsite for conservation with local vendor Quarto. The four we chose exhibited serious binding and textual issues that threatened not only the long-term survival of the works but also severely limited their safe access by patrons.

Our goal in Special Collections is to provide both our external and campus patrons with access to the works they need to research and study. And thus, our number one goal in conserving these manuscripts was to render them stable for both eventual digitization and in-person access, without damaging the text or any original materials in the binding.

We would like to keep the campus community informed about the progress of this long-term project, so whenever we finish with a batch of books, we will post a blog on the highlights of the returned works. And so without further ado, we present the four most recently conserved works for your consideration:

1. De emandatione pectoris [and various other works], ca. 1450 (MS 114)

This work from the mid-fifteenth century contains theological and spiritual works from a number of late antique and medieval authors, ranging from Caesarius of Arles to Leonardo Bruni.

MS 114 – before (left) and after (right) conservation.

Comparing the before conservation photos (left column) with the after conservation (right column) reveals a subtle, but important, difference. This late medieval text was rebound sometime in the 18th century, with a leather covering that was beginning to experience red rot (a common degradation in vegetable-treated leather). The leather cover was cracked and loose, most notably along the spine. This cracking made it difficult to access the text without further damaging the leather covering and binding around the spine.

To resolve the issues limiting access, the conservators repaired and reaffixed the damaged part of the spine. They also used treatments to clean the textblock (the stacks of pages inside the covers and binding) of the manuscript and slow the process of decay of the leather binding.

2. St. Jerome, Epistolae, ca. 1400 (MS 168)

This northern Italian manuscript of Jerome’s letters is a beautiful work with a gorgeous miniature (a small illustration) on its opening text page (as pictured above). Sadly, accessing the work was difficult without its stabilizing boards attached.

MS 168 – Top and left center photo show the manuscript prior to conservation, with the bottom and right center image after.

Medieval and early modern books are usually bound with wooden boards over the front and back pages, offering stabilization and protection to the textblock contained between them. The boards, which are bound together with the textblock, are then covered with leather. These wooden boards can experience rotting or damage, but in this case, the binding had loosened, causing the boards to become completely detached from the textblock and spine. This made accessing the text difficult without adding damaging pressure onto the first few pages of the text.

In the collage on the right, you can see what the manuscript looked like a year ago, including how the front and back cover boards were completely loose.  On the bottom and right center photos, you can see the work Quarto did to restore the binding. The conservators rebound the boards to the textblock and added chemical solutions to stabilize the cover’s leather.

3. Johannes Canonicus, Quaestiones supra octo libros physicorum, 1364 (MS 169)

This may have been the most challenging of the works sent offsite. A manuscript reflecting on Aristotle’s Physics, the entire binding and cover boards of the work were warped, pest damaged, and decayed to such a degree that it was virtually impossible to safely open the manuscript. But this was a popularly requested manuscript from researchers!

MS 169 – Top photos are before conservation, with the bottom two after.

To complicate matters, the cover boards appear to be original to the text, dating from the 14th century. However, the spine is coated and bound in a much later (19th century) paper binding, including bits of newsprint. This paper binding had rapidly deteriorated and was marked with evidence of past insect infestation. The binding was effectively non-existent, with the work and its textblock loose. Even attempting to open the book was difficult and caused damage to the text. Serious work was needed to stabilize it for continued use.

You can see the end result of Quarto’s work above. Keeping the original boards and binding was nigh-impossible, so the conservators created replica boards and alum-tawed calf cover (a calf leather prepared with a liquid solution to create a white appearance) — mimicking the style and weight of the original — with new binding.

MS 169 – String and paper binding shown on top, with original board on bottom.

But fear not! We do not toss out book materials in rare books! These pieces can tell us so much about the original production of a work or later restoration, rebindings, or conservation work. So the original boards, spine, and threads have all been kept and added to our collections. Patrons wishing to access the collections may see these pieces, alongside the restored manuscript.

4. German prayer book, 1440-80 (MS 178)

Our final work is a fifteenth-century prayer book from Germany. A small, but bulky text, this work presented an interesting challenge. Not only was the front board missing and the original binding exposed, but several pages were loose throughout the text. The back board was still present and attached, with the original leather partially covering it (but cracking and brittle). With cracking leather and an exposed textblock, handling this work was precarious.

MS 178 – Left column of images are before conservation, with the right after.

In the left column, you can see the manuscript prior to conservation. On the right is the manuscript after conservation. The goal was to stabilize the textblock for access and preserve the original binding, board, and leather. In order to do so, Quarto crafted a facsimile board for the cover, worked to stabilize the surviving leather, and reattach the loose pages. Without modifying or removing the original binding threads, the conservation team attached the new board to the front and developed a paper chemise (a case in which a book is stored) to offer an extra layer of protection to the text and binding. This chemise is easily removable (as seen in the photos) and will allow patrons to study the original binding, board, and leather. When not needed for viewing, the chemise can be slipped back on to protect these original components.

While there are many details that this post did not cover with respect to conservation efforts — especially when it comes to cleaning the textblock’s pages — we welcome all patrons to send us questions about the conservation process or these manuscripts.

As we work on our conservation efforts, we will continue to update the community. In the meantime, if you have any questions about accessing the above manuscripts or any materials in Rare Books or Special Collections, please contact us at: lib-rarebooks@cua.edu

Our digitized manuscripts may also be viewed at this link.

The Archivist’s Nook: Introducing Students to Rare Books

Stacks of the Clementine Library. I would best describe its scent as warm and toasty.

Think back to the last book you read. How old was it? Were the pages brittle or waxy, thick or thin? How did the cover and pages feel in your hands? Was there a smell to the book – freshly printed or a musty odor? Did the book catch the eye with its cover, type, or images? Did it make a sound when opened – a crisp snap of a never-before-opened spine or the dull groan of well-worn binding? Was picking up this book an experience of all the senses?

While we certainly do not taste our books, there is no way to avoid having an otherwise full sensory experience when entering Rare Books and Special Collections. Contained within its stacks are 70,000 volumes, spanning 10 centuries. The collection includes a wide range of materials from medieval legal texts and early modern musical pieces to twentieth century textbooks and first edition novels. The aroma and sights immediately catch one’s attention, and the feel and sound of each book as you open it offers a reminder of its age.

This past academic year, the Archives staff has been assisting in Rare Books. In addition to answering reference questions and exploring the materials contained within its stacks, we have hosted three classes in the space. Each class came from a distinct program and reviewed different materials with varying learning goals in mind. Much as we are whenever a class comes to handle archival documents for the first time, we were excited to provide the students with their potential first experience of accessing rare books.

Tafsīr wāsiʻ ʻalá al-taʻlīm al-Masīhī (Translation of a Catechism for Confession and Communion), 1770.

In the fall, we hosted students from the School of Theology and Religious Studies as part of a “History and Theory of Catechetics” course. During their visit, the students were able to work with dozens of catechisms spanning several continents, numerous languages, and six centuries. Tapping into the collections of sixteenth-century folios and assorted Catholic theological and lay devotional publications, we were able to create an evolutionary display of catechisms from the fifteenth century to the present. Among the highlights were an Arabic catechism from 1770, a Navajo catechism from 1937, and a series of pocket catechisms from the nineteenth century. Supplementing this collection with materials from the Archives, we were able to bring the students from the Council of Trent to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

As the new semester began in the cold of January, our staff prepared to host another visiting class, this time from the School of Philosophy. Entitled “Before Printing: The Establishment and Transmission of Ancient and Medieval Texts,” the course’s professor wished to expose her students to the physicality of the manuscripts they would study over the coming months. From our medieval manuscript and incunabula collections, we provided several Thomistic philosophical and theological treatises. Through a partnership with the Semitics/ICOR Library, the class was also able to review Arabic philosophical texts. While the students would primarily continue to work with facsimiles and digital copies of manuscripts this semester, having that initial opportunity for a full sensory experience is key to both contextualizing the sources and eliciting excitement.

Lectionarium, ca. 1200 (MS 158). Some of the volumes have intricate bindings and clasps, added by much later owners. This particular binding is seen in numerous manuscripts in our collections.

My own first exposure to manuscripts was in Rare Books at Catholic University. Working with a medieval copy of Gratian’s Decretum as part of a class project helped me appreciate the beauty and wonder of these texts, and solidified my excitement for curation and historical research. I would never have guessed I would be helping provide access to these same materials years later!

Finally, our most recent academic visitors came as part of a Greek and Latin course, “Latin Paleography.” In addition to two codicology workshops held in Rare Books, the students will each work closely with a medieval manuscript in our collections to create a catalog entry. The manuscripts held by the University are thus providing valuable tools for the students to better understand the materiality and scribal norms of the medieval written word.

In addition to its strengths in Catholic history, Rare Books contains several unique collections, including a Malta collection, the Clementine Library, the Connolly Irish Collection, the Richard N. Foley Modern English Collection, its American Catholic Pamphlets and Parish Histories Collection, and much more.

Book of Hours, ca. 1460 (MS. 136b)

Fundamentally, the collection’s value to the Catholic University community and broader scholarly world lies in its ability to provide students and scholars with opportunities to connect with the history of the written word as well as the contexts and ideas provided by each text. Plus, as the class visits illustrate, it is a wonderful source of collaboration for its sister special collections on campus!

For more information on Rare Books, see: https://libraries.catholic.edu/special-collections/rare-books/index.html

Questions may be addressed to: lib-rarebooks@cua.edu

The Archivist’s Nook: A Venus Fixer Goes to War

A devastating scene during the Italian Campaign of WWII.

“It’s been a strange way to do my wartime service but somebody had to do it and, since…I wondered inside who will take care of the monuments and the objects of art, I’m afraid I rather asked for it and so it was not improperly myself who was chosen.” – Staff Sargeant Bernard M. Peebles to Colonel Ernest T. DeWald, 1945

The Museum, Fine Arts, and Archives (MFAA) Subcommittee, more popularly known as either the Monuments Men or Venus Fixers, was a program that focused on protecting and restoring cultural and historic sites and materials during the Second World War. Consisting of scholars of art, manuscripts, and architecture, the members of the MFAA often operated in active warzones across North Africa and Europe with limited resources. Not only did they work to assess the damages rendered to cultural sites and archives, but they worked to guarantee the survival of missing or pillaged art or manuscripts. Long-time Catholic University Professor of Greek and Latin (1948-1971) Bernard M. Peebles was one such Venus Fixer, serving in Italy from 1943-1945.

German Field-Marshall Albert Kesselring allegedly referred to the Italian campaign as “waging war in a museum.” With limited resources and combat raging across a culturally-rich and highly urban peninsula, the Allies relied on informational flyers and posts and local aid to secure sites.

Peebles was born in Norfolk, Virginia on January 1, 1906. He received his Bachelors in Greek and Latin in 1926 from the University of Virginia, and his Masters and Doctorate at Harvard University in 1928 and 1940 respectively. During this time he was also a fellow at the American Academy in Rome from 1932-1934. While in Rome, he met and befriended a fellow scholar by the name of Wolfgang Hagemann. The two would later be on opposing sides of the war effort, with Hagemann engaged in art and translation work with Rommel’s armies in North Africa and Italy.

In the years prior to the war, Peebles’ teaching career blossomed as he taught at Harvard (1937-1939), Fordham University (1939-1941), and at St. John’s College in Annapolis (1941-1942). With the US entering WWII, Peebles enlisted in 1942, being assigned as a chief clerk for the MFAA . As one of the earliest members of the Program, he began his service in Sicily in the fall of 1943, where he was regarded as a “discoverer of manuscripts.”¹ As a report dated 20 January 1944 from Palermo, Sicily relates:

Visiting a hardware shop in Via Cassari, [Peebles] saw there some old MS. Documents loose on the counter and apparently about to be used as wrapping paper. Upon showing interest in the documents he was allowed to examine them and, afterwards, a larger number which apparently had been removed from the same bound volume and comprised some sheets of parchment, one with heading in gold. Upon offering to buy the smaller batch of documents, he was told that he have them as a gift… A second visit to the neighborhood to determine the precise location of the shop found it closed but revealed that several shops in the Via Argenteria were using similar old MSS. (along with other documents of more recent date) to wrap fish and other edibles.²

Right photo: Peebles (L) with Hagemann (R), together on a hike in Verona in 1933. Left photo: Peebles during his MFAA tour in Italy.

Among the documents recovered were those belonging to the Palermo state archives, including early eighteenth-century manuscripts from Philip V of Spain! Peebles continued to serve with the MFAA in Italy throughout the remainder of the war. In 1945, a request came in for him to transfer to Austria to assist the Monument Men there. Writing to Colonel DeWald, Director of the Italian MFAA, he expressed a desire to finish the job in Italy – a mission he referred to as “[his] baby” – and then return to his wife, child, and academic career in the United States. He was awarded this opportunity, along with the Bronze Star and British Empire medal.

Peebles returned to the US in 1945, and began teaching at Catholic University in 1948. He served with the Greek and Latin Department – including an eight-year stint as Chair (1962-1970) – until his retirement in 1971. A scholar with wide-ranging interests in Latin manuscripts, he is most well-known for his work on the Church Fathers and Patristic studies. Sadly, he died during a robbery attempt in 1976.

In addition to recording his long academic career, the papers of Bernard Peebles catalogs his experience of the Second World War, with Allied reports, maps, and propaganda material.  It may be viewed here: http://archives.lib.cua.edu/findingaid/peebles.cfm

A small sampling of the WWII documentation and objects contained in the Bernard M. Peebles Papers, including his Bronze Star.

¹laria Dagnini Brey The Venus Fixers: The Remarkable Story of the Allied Monuments Officers Who Saved Italy’s Art During World War II (New York: Picador, 2010), 71-72.
²Ibid.

Digitized Medieval Manuscripts app

Giulio Menna & Marjolein de Vos of Sexy Codicology have developed a new product called Digitized Medieval Manuscripts app which “links to more than 300 libraries in the world.1”  All of these manuscripts are available for free online from various libraries and institutions throughout the world. It’s a great tool for furthering your historical research.

DMMapp

  1. Menna, Giulio, and de Vos, Marjolein. DMMapp – digitized medieval manuscripts app. in Digitized Medieval Manuscripts Maps [database online]. [cited 11/12 2014]. Available from http://digitizedmedievalmanuscripts.org/app/.

Lecture on Conservation of Archimedes Codex

On Monday, Feb. 27 at  6:oo PM, Abigail Quandt, Senior Conservator of Manuscripts and Rare Books at the Walters Art Museum will present “Putting the Pieces Together: The Codicology & Conservation of the Archimedes Palimpsest.”  Ms. Quandt led the 12-year effort to stabilize the Archimedes Codex for the imaging which would reveal the earliest manuscript of Archimedes’ treatises. She is widely published and an internationally recognized expert in the conservation of medieval manuscripts and illuminations.

The lecture will be held in the Pryzbyla Center, Room A, with a reception to follow, and is sponsored by Rare Books & Special Collections, Mullen Library and the Department of Chemistry. For further information contact Rare Books at (202) 319-5091 or rouse@cua.edu

Guide on researching manuscripts

The librarians in Religious Studies and Humanities Services have created a research guide on finding manuscripts using CUA library resources.  The guide is divided into several categories: by region,  English, Greek, Latin, U.S. collections, and images.

We welcome suggestions and comments.  Please contact Kevin Gunn at gunn@cua.edu or 202-319-5088.