“Physica Sacra,” Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer, 1731 : Guest Post by Morbid Anatomy’s Joanna Ebenstein

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Greetings.

My name is Joanna Ebenstein; I run a blog called Morbid Anatomy as well as the related Morbid Anatomy Library—an open-to-the-public research collection in Brooklyn, New York—and the Morbid Anatomy Presents series of lecture and workshops. All of these projects aim to explore the intersections of art and medicine, death and culture, with a particular focus on historical medical collections and libraries.

In the run-up to NYAM’s October 5th Wonder Cabinet and Medical History Festival (which I am co-curating), I have been invited to write a series of guest posts in which I will report on the treasures and curiosities I find in my explorations of NYAM’s excellent rare book and historical collections. In this, the first of that series, I would like to focus one of my favorite books—and one of the most enigmatic books of all time—Johannes Jacob Scheuchzer’s 4-volume high baroque extravaganza of art, science, mysticism, and all worldly knowledge, Physica Sacra.

NYAMsacra7Originally published in 1731, this bizarre large-scale book features over 700 copper plate engravings. With a fine balance of careful observation and allegorical imagination, these depict—in frames each more fanciful than the last—such scenes as: lamenting fetal skeletons with the motto “homo ex humo” (‘man from the ground’, or ‘dust’); a variety of anatomical views of the human body projected on drapery or foregrounding mysterious landscapes; birds in biblical landscapes augmented by baffling cyphers; comparative snowflakes with the text “thesauri nivis” or “treasures of snow”; and much more.

These images serve as an excellent reminder that our views of science—and particularly the study of the human body—have changed over time. As explained by Martin Kemp and Marina Wallace in their book Spectacular Bodies:

The purpose of anatomical images during the period of the Renaissance to the 19th century had as much to do with what we would call aesthetic and theological understanding as with the narrower interests of medical illustrators as now understood . . . . They were not simply instructional diagrams for the doctor technician, but statements about the nature of human beings as made by God in the context of the created world as a whole . . . they are about the nature of life and death. . . .

I have not been able to find too much about this book in English, though my friend—and Wonder Cabinet speaker—Daniel Margócsy has promised a future lecture on the topic. In the mean time, Christie’s Auction House has a helpful entry on the book that explains that Johann Jakob Scheuchzer (1672–1733)—a Swiss doctor and natural scientist—”planned the Physica Sacra as an explanation of and a commentary on the Bible on natural-scientific grounds. He himself oversaw the illustrations which were largely based on his own natural history cabinet or on other famous European cabinets of rare specimens.”

Scheuchzer’s work also inspired an art exhibit at the University of Massachusetts—Dartmouth in 2007/8: “Science, Religion, Art.”  The organizers note that:

a lifelong scholar, Scheuchzer’s pursuits of knowledge were wide-ranging and diverse, from science to medicine to paleontology. Like many scientists of the late 17th and early 18th century, Scheuchzer held to the belief that the Old Testament was a factual account of the history of the earth. . . . In a period before public museums, Scheuchzer presented a seductive view of an imaginary world, viewed through lush frames depicting secondary symbols, plants, animals, heads and other objects, providing the viewer rich material for an inspired vision of the interaction between the natural and the divine powers.

Below are just a very few of my favorite images from the book, some that I photographed from the original, and others coming from the set of almost half of the 737 images from the book (!!!) so kindly provided by greyherbert’s amazing Flickr stream; you can see them all by clicking here.

Stay tuned for more posts in the days and weeks to come!

Joanna Ebenstein, Morbid Anatomy
Guest post # 1

Eighty Years and Counting

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This gallery contains 4 photos.

By Arlene Shaner, Acting Curator and Reference Librarian for Historical Collections Many of you are aware that the Malloch Suite of rare book rooms (the Coller Rare Book Reading Room and the Seminar Room) has been under renovation since early … Continue reading

Seeing With New Eyes: Rediscovering Medieval Manuscripts in a Digital Age

Today we have a guest post written by Monica Green, a longtime NYAM researcher.

Several times over the past 30 years, I’ve consulted a mid-13th-century manuscript in the New York Academy of Medicine’s holdings. This large, 94-leaf, handsomely bound volume was formative to my training as a historian of medieval medical history, having been the first “real” manuscript I examined when I was beginning my researches on the so-called Trotula texts in the early 1980s.

Opening of Caelius.

Opening of Caelius, f. 61ra

Like most scholars who study the history of intellectual traditions, my eyes were on my immediate object of study—in this case, a 12th-century compendium of texts on women’s medicine and cosmetics. My peripheral vision went no further than the other texts on women’s medicine that surrounded it in the manuscript. These were certainly enthralling: they included one of only two known copies of the Gynecology of the 4th-century writer, Caelius Aurelianus. But the other contents of the manuscript, let alone its structure as a whole, were all but invisible to me.

I did come back, many years later, with some questions about one of the surgical texts in the volume.  This was the visually stunning (and rightly famous) Surgery of the early 11th-century Cordoban physician, Abu al-Qasim Khalaf ibn ‘Abbas al-Zahrawi, whose work had been translated from Arabic into Latin in Toledo.  But the NYAM manuscript was not a unique copy (al-Zahrawi’s work exists in some 33 extant Latin manuscripts), and so—my questions quickly answered—I moved on again.

But my attention was brought back to the NYAM volume again last year, because of some questions being raised by a new project.  Two problems seemed to revolve around each other:  why was there a 50-year gap between when the Arabic-into-Latin translator Gerard of Cremona died in 1187 (he was the one who had translated al-Zahrawi) and when his texts first started to be regularly used and cited?  And, secondly, why did so many copies of these works, once they did appear, seem (a) to cluster around Paris and (b) show a level of magnificence in decoration that most medical texts had never previously enjoyed?

Suddenly, the NYAM manuscript took on new significance:  the illumination and decoration, which I had previously ignored, became newly important.  And so, too, did the “minor” texts, such as the Surgery of Horses, of which this is likewise an early copy.  This really was a most unusual manuscript, I realized. And the physical character of the book—its structure and decoration as well as its contents—were key to figuring it out.  So here I am this summer, back to consult it again.

f. 77ra, opening of Trotula

f. 77ra, opening of Trotula

The gynecological unit, which I had worked with most extensively, was the most typical:  the Trotula text, for example, opens with a lovely “puzzle” initial ‘U’, but there is nothing here to distinguish the manuscript from many hundreds of others made in the same period.

Not so for the surgical section of the manuscript.  First was the cautery section:  most of what must have been about two dozen images had been cut away (yes, they had art thieves already in the Middle Ages!).  But the two images that remain show, in quite typical northern European style, images of a surgeon applying hot burning irons to the surface of the patient’s body in order to heal, respectively, sciatica and heart or stomach problems.

f. 3ra, cautery scenes

f. 3ra, cautery scenes

f. 45ra, opening of Roger, Chirurgia

f. 45ra, opening of Roger, Chirurgia

Immediately following was a sequence of other surgical texts.  Each one of them had a striking opening initial, framed in gold leaf with elegant foliated designs that are very similar to the output of an artist’s workshop in Paris associated with the name of the Johannes Grusch.  The three-headed devil that opens the Surgery of Roger Frugardi is especially memorable.

 

 

f. 23va:  sample champie initial and clapsedra

f. 23va: sample champie initial and clapsedra

But in the middle of that sequence of smaller surgical texts (all of which probably came out of southern Italy) comes the al-Zahrawi text, with its own unique decoration scheme.  Here we find throughout the text elegant gold-leaf initials, drawn against alternating light blue or rose-colored backgrounds with white ink filigree.  (Art historians call this a “champie” decoration.)  And, of course, here we find the depictions of surgical tools that characterize all the copies of al-Zahrawi’s surgical text, whether Latin or Arabic. The different decoration schemes seemed to correspond to different places from where the commissioner of this book was getting his exemplars (the manuscripts from which this manuscript was copied).

So in what sense does being in a digital age give us “new eyes”?  I had the physical manuscript right in front of me:  800 years of history that I could touch with my hands.  Nothing “virtual” about this!  Ah, but the New York Academy of Medicine was not this book’s original home.  Because so many European libraries are now making their manuscripts available digitally online, it is possible to reconstruct virtually what medieval libraries looked like, to reassemble their components and reconstruct how they came into being.  Because I could learn more about other manuscripts produced at the same time, I was now beginning to understand how extraordinary this manuscript’s medieval home had been.

The NYAM manuscript was commissioned in the mid-13th century by Richard de Fournival, a surgeon and, eventually, the chancellor of the cathedral of Amiens.  (de Fournival had gotten special dispensation from the Pope to continue his surgical practice despite his being a cleric.  His father and nephew were physicians, too.)  The NYAM manuscript captures all the international networks that de Fournival belonged to:  English, Norman, French, and Italian.  Besides being a cleric and a surgeon (and a poet and musician), de Fournival was a librarian—not simply a collector but a curator of books.  The library he created of 162 volumes (comprising many 100s of different texts) literally changed the course of history in laying the foundation for a new, more sophisticated medical system in Europe that was as influential in establishing the social worlds of physicians and other medical practitioners as it was in defining their intellectual worlds.  It was de Fournival, I was realizing, that was instrumental in rediscovering Gerard of Cremona’s translations (including al-Zahrawi’s Surgery) and introducing them into the fertile context of the Parisian academic world.

In our day, Google and PubMed and any number of Internet resources make us lose sight of where knowledge comes from.  Everything seems freely available, whenever we want it.  But books were once extraordinarily precious.  Juxtaposing the digital with the real vellum and leather and wood and gold leaf of a medieval manuscript is an excellent reminder of the cultures of learning we still share across the centuries.

Monica H. Green is a specialist in medieval medical history and the global history of health.  She would like to thank Alison Stones for the impetus to bring “new eyes” to the NYAM manuscript, and Jocelyn Wogan-Browne for making this New York sojourn possible.  And, of course, the NYAM librarians for once again making the manuscript available for study.  Green will be spending the 2013-14 academic year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.  She can be reached at monica.green@asu.edu.

Item of the Month: Charles Darwin’s The Descent of Man and Selection Related to Sex

By Danielle Aloia, Special Projects Librarian

Charles Darwin. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

Charles Darwin. Courtesy of the National Library of Medicine.

The Descent of Man is a groundbreaking work, as relevant today as when it was first published in 1871. The Center for History owns 8 copies of this title, published 12 years after Darwin’s most well known work, On the Origin of Species. Both books sold out quickly, a sign both of Darwin’s persuasive writing, and people’s persistent interest in their origins! In the Descent of Man, Darwin explained the development of the human species by evolutionary processes. He particularly focused on two points: whether the ability to reason and to make moral judgments could evolve in the same way as could physical forms, and how beauty and other seemingly extraneous factors could have an evolutionary role. These were contentious issues, as mental abilities seemed to be a sharp divide between humans and animals, and the existence of order, harmony, and beauty seemed inconsistent with evolution. To think that man had “evolved from apes” seemed nonsensical and was much criticized; Darwin sought to make it plausible.

Here we examine a 1915 copy of the second edition, first published in 1874, which was greatly revised and augmented with extra illustrations in comparison to the first edition. In the preface, Darwin stated, “When naturalists have become familiar with the idea of sexual selection, it will, as I believe, be much more largely accepted; and it has already been fully and favourably received by several capable judges.” He also acknowledged the criticism he received, referring to the “fiery ordeal through which the book has passed,” and welcomed the observations “of Prof. Huxley, on the nature of the differences between the brains of man and the higher apes.” In a series of debates in the early 1860s with noted anatomist Robert Owen, Darwin’s compatriot T.H. Huxley had demonstrated the essential structural continuity of human and ape brains, providing another piece to the puzzle. Darwin knew and accepted that his theories would provoke a backlash, and he modified the details as needed, but he also held steadfast to his original concepts.

A Table of the Principal Additions and Corrections to the Edition of 1874 compares the 1st edition of 1871, the 2nd of 1874, and the 2nd edition “new printing” of 1888, and is included in the opening pages. Especially interesting are: “Cases of men born with hairy bodies”, and “Resemblances between idiots and animals”.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The engravings reference the differences among males and females of the same species, to illustrate the concept of sexual selection. The species depicted ranged over many classes, including insects, crustaceans, reptiles, birds, and mammals. The engraving below helps to explain how the beautiful plumage of the male bird attracts the female.

darwinbirds

Click to enlarge.

This edition also includes a reprint from an article in Nature, from November 2, 1876, which Darwin wrote to explain his misinterpretation of the “brightly-coloured hinder ends and adjoining parts of monkeys.” He was wrong in assuming that the bright color was for attracting the opposite sex. He read an article by Herr J. von Fischer, who studied monkeys, even keeping them in his house, which explained that the reason was more straightforward: the species would “turn this part of their bodies . . . to him when they are pleased, and to other persons as a sort of greeting.” Surely, Darwin was unafraid to own up to his mistakes.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

The book also hosts a tightly-worded index of over 40 pages, where can be found references to the color of Kingfishers, dogs dreaming, and the liability of monkeys to the same diseases as man.

Click to enlarge.

Click to enlarge.

This volume of work has long been the cause of both scientific inquiry and challenge, and continues to be a work of enduring scientific importance.

Sources

Darwin, Charles. (1915). The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Alter, Stephen G. (2007). Race, Language, and Mental Evolution in Darwin’s Descent of Man. Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. 43(3): 239-255.

The Darwin Centenary and “The Descent of Man.” (187-).The American Review of Reviews. 239-240.

There is Death in the Pot

By Johanna Goldberg, Information Services Librarian

While in the stacks recently, we came across this intriguing cover.

DeathinthePot-cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How can you not open the book? The title page did not disappoint.

DeathinthePot-titlepageFood adulteration was a dangerous problem in 19th-century London. In 1820, chemist Fredrick Accum wrote A Treatise on Adulterations of Food and Culinary Poisons, the first book of its kind to attempt to expose the dangers of the food, water, and beverage supply.¹

Among many other practices, Accum cautioned against alum in the bread supply, used to make bread whiter; fraudulent peppercorns, made of lintseed, clay, and a small bit of Cayenne; vinegar laced with sulphuric acid; red lead used to color cheese; and beer mixed with a poisonous narcotic plant, cocculus indicus.² Forty years after the book’s publication, Parliament passed the Food Adulteration Act.¹

The Royal Society of Chemistry’s Library and Information Centre offers an excellent online exhibit on the life and times of Accum (including a career-ending scandal involving mistreatment of library books). Learn more here.

Edit: A reader recognized the artwork as that of Berkeley King and kindly provided us with the following image of the cover of Accum’s Plans of the Gas Works in London, which King also designed.

AccumPlansoftheGasWorksinLondon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1. The fight against food adulteration. (n.d.). Retrieved May 16, 2013, from http://www.rsc.org/education/eic/issues/2005mar/thefightagainstfoodadulteration.asp

2. Accum, F. (1820). A treatise on adulterations of food, and culinary poisons exhibiting the fraudulent sophistications of bread, beer, wine, spirituous liquors, tea, coffee, cream, confectionery, vinegar, mustard, pepper, cheese, olive oil, pickles, and other articles employed in domestic economy, and methods of detecting them. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown.

For your viewing pleasure

This Wednesday’s 2013 New York Academy of Medicine Gala featured the following video on the Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health. If you would like to learn more about our work or visit us in person, please email history@nyam.org and library@nyam.org.

Syphilis, or the French Disease

By Rebecca Pou, Project Archivist

To celebrate National Poetry Month, we are sharing a poem from our collection each week during April.

Portrait of Fracastorius from Homocentrica, Venice: 1538.

Portrait of Fracastorius from Homocentrica. Venice, 1538.*

Syphilis seems like an unlikely topic for a poem, yet it is the subject of an important and popular work. Syphilis, or the French Disease, was first published in 1530. At that time, syphilis was new to Europe and spreading fast. To the Italians it was the “French disease,” to the French the “Italian disease,” with many other countries blaming one another for bringing the infection to their citizens. Written in Latin by the multi-faceted Italian physician and poet Fracastorius, the poem was translated into many languages, reflecting the great desire to understand this disease. Our collection holds multiple editions, including the original, pictured above, and several English versions (this post features two English translations – one is pictured below and another as the excerpts).

In the poem, which is broken into three parts, we learn of the disease and some popular treatments of the time, including mercury and the plant remedy guaiac. We also read the tale of a shepherd named Syphilus, supposedly the first person afflicted with the disease, which was his punishment for spurning the sun. Excerpts from each of the poem’s books, taken from William Van Wyck’s translation, are below.

Book 1

Within the purple womb of night, a slave,
The strangest plague returned to sear the world.
Infecting Europe’s breast, the scourge was hurled
From Lybian cities to the Black Sea’s wave.
When warring France would march on Italy,
It took her name. I consecrate my rhymes
To this unbidden guest of twenty climes,
Although unwelcomed, and eternally.
………………
O Muse, reveal to me what seed has grown
This evil that for long remained unknown!
Till Spanish sailors made west their goal,
And ploughed the seas to find another pole,
Adding to this world a new universe.
Did these men bring to us this latent curse?
In every place beneath a clamorous sky,
There burst spontaneously this frightful pest.
Few people has it failed to scarify,
Since commerce introduced it from the west.
Hiding its origin, this evil thing
Sprawls over Europe
………………

Albrecht Durer's woodcut of a syphilitic man.

Albrecht Durer’s woodcut of a syphilitic man, 1496.*

Book 2

Soon is repaired the ruin of the flesh,
If lard be well applied that’s good and fresh,
Or dyer’s colors of a soothing power.
If some poor soul, impatient for the hour
Of sweet release, should find too slow this cure,
And yearning for a quicker and more sure,
Then stronger remedies without delay
Shall kill this hydra another way.
………………
All men concede that mercury’s the best
Of agents that will cure a tainted breast.
To heat and cold sensitive’s mercury,
Absorbing the fires of the this vile leprosy
And all the body’s flames by its sheer weight…
………………

Book 3

An ancient king had we, Alcithous,
Who had a shepherd lad called Syphilus.
On our prolific meads, a thousand sheep,
A thousand kine this shepherd had to keep.
One day, old Sirius with his mighty flame,
During the summer solstice to us came,
Taking away the shade from all our trees,
The freshness from the meadow, coolth from breeze.
His beasts expiring, then did Syphilus
Turn to this horror of a brazen heaven,
Braving the sun’s so torrid terror even,
Gazing upon its face and speaking thus:
‘O Sun, how we endure, a slave to you!
You are a tyrant to us in this hour.
………………
The sun went pallid for his righteous wrath
And germinated poisons in our path.
And he who wrought this outrage was the first
To feel his body ache, when sore accursed.
And for his ulcers and their torturing,
No longer would a tossing, hard couch bring
Him sleep. With joints apart and flesh erased,
Thus was the shepherd flailed and thus debased.
And after him this malady we call
SYPHILIS, tearing at our city’s wall
To bring with it such ruin and such a wrack,
That e’en the king escaped not its attack.
………………

* From Van Wyck, William. The sinister shepherd: a translation of Girolamo Fracastoro’s Syphilidis; sive, De morbo gallico libri tres. Los Angeles, 1934.

Modeling History: Making a Stiff-Board Parchment Binding with a Slotted Spine

This post comes from the 2012 Gladys Brooks conservation intern, Morgan Adams. Morgan is currently interning in the Thaw Conservation Center at the Morgan Library & Museum

As the 2012 Gladys Brooks intern I had the pleasure of working with Senior Book Conservator Anne Hillam on a model of a stiff-boards parchment binding with a slotted spine, a style seen commonly in Italian bindings of the 16th-17th centuries.

An example of a stiff-boards parchment binding with a slotted spine from the NYAM collection: Trincavello, De differentiis febrium, Venice, 1585. Left: Back cover and spine. Right: Front cover.

An example of a stiff-boards parchment binding with a slotted spine from the NYAM collection: Trincavello, De differentiis febrium, Venice, 1585. Left: Back cover and spine. Right: Front cover.

A unique feature of this binding is the juxtaposition of the parchment and alum-tawed skin used to cover the book’s spine. Slots cut in the parchment across the spine reveal the alum-tawed skin patches covering the sewing supports. It is a combination with structural as well aesthetic advantages: The alum-tawed skin provides the flexibility necessary to conform to the raised sewing supports, while the parchment provides a more durable surface to protect the bulk of the spine.

Trincavello (1585): Detail of spine showing the alum-tawed skin patch adhered over sewing support. The original color of the patch can be seen where the parchment is split along the shoulder of the spine.

Trincavello (1585): Detail of spine showing the alum-tawed skin patch adhered over sewing support. The original color of the patch can be seen where the parchment is split along the shoulder of the spine.

To prepare for this binding, we made detailed examinations of six books printed in Venice between 1508 and 1585 in the NYAM special collections. In conjunction with Sylvia Pugliese’s study of this binding style at the National Library Marciana in Venice, we selected material and structural features that exemplified the binding style. These features are highlighted in the images below, which show the steps of the binding process and the finished model.

The text block is sewn on three laminated alum-tawed supports.

The text block is sewn on three laminated alum-tawed supports.

Left: The text block is rounded and backed and the spine is lined with parchment. Endbands are sewn through the spine lining on twisted alum-tawed skin supports.

Left: The text block is rounded and backed and the spine is lined with parchment. Endbands are sewn through the spine lining on twisted alum-tawed skin supports. Right: Galen, Omnia quae extant in Latinum sermonem convsera, Venice, 1556, detail of the spine showing an endband, parchment spine lining, and one sewing station.

Left: Endbands seen from above. Right: Galen (1556) detail of the front bead endband sewn in red and white thread.

Left: Endbands seen from above. Right: Galen (1556) detail of the front bead endband sewn in red and white thread.

Left: The sewing supports are laced into the boards and then covered in alum-tawed skin patches. The endband cores are also laced into the boards. Right: Trincavello (1585), detail showing the "arrow-point" shaping of the alum-tawed skin patch underneath the parchment and the endband core that has been laced through the board and trimmed off flush with the board.

Left: The sewing supports are laced into the boards and then covered in alum-tawed skin patches. The endband cores are also laced into the boards. Right: Trincavello (1585), detail showing the “arrow-point” shaping of the alum-tawed skin patch underneath the parchment and the endband core that has been laced through the board and trimmed off flush with the board.

A template is prepared for cutting the slots in the parchment. The binding is now ready to be covered.

A template is prepared for cutting the slots in the parchment. The binding is now ready to be covered.

After the parchment cover is adhered, ties are laced through the boards at the fore-edge, head and tail. The parchment spine linings are adhered to the interior face of the board and the endsheet is pasted down.

After the parchment cover is adhered, ties are laced through the boards at the fore-edge, head and tail. The parchment spine linings are adhered to the interior face of the board and the endsheet is pasted down.

Trincavello (1585), The surface of the pastedown reveals the ends of ties formerly  laced through the board.

Trincavello (1585), The surface of the pastedown reveals the ends of ties formerly laced through the board.

Finished model, complete with ties on fore-edge, head, and tail.

Finished model, complete with ties on fore-edge, head, and tail.

[1] Sylvia Pugliese, “Stiff-Board Vellum Binding with Slotted Spine: Survey of a Historical Bookbinding Structure,” in Papier Restaurierung – Mitteilungen der IADA, Vol. 2 (2001), Suppl., S. 93-101.

Brain Awareness Week

By Lisa O’Sullivan, Director

Ambroise Paré, The brain and nerves of the head and neck, p134, Les Oeuvres

Ambroise ParéThe brain and nerves of the head and neck, p134, Les Oeuvres

This week is Brain Awareness Week, a global campaign to celebrate the brain and increase awareness of brain research. Treating the brain has a long history; trepanning, or trepanation, is one of the oldest known surgical procedures.

The brain featured in today’s post comes from Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré, currently being treated in our conservation laboratory. The work was the culmination of the 16th century French barber-surgeon’s long and successful career, which saw him become royal surgeon for a number of French kings.

Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré was first published in 1575, and was subsequently expanded in multiple new editions. It was groundbreaking on a number of levels, written in the vernacular French, rather than Latin, it included not only anatomical depictions and descriptions of procedures, but illustrations of the instruments used in surgery, many of which Paré had modified or developed himself.

Looking for that je ne sais quoi : the conservation of Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré

By Christina Amato, Book Conservator

NYAM conservator Christina Amato removes a damaged and ill-suited spine from a 1633 copy of Paré’s Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré/

NYAM conservator Christina Amato removing a damaged and ill-suited spine from a 1633 copy of Paré’s Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré

Many books come through the Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation lab, and often they receive minimal stabilization, or are rehoused in new boxes or folders. Occasionally one comes through that is in need of an entirely new binding, and requires some research before getting started.

quarterviewlesoeuvres

Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré, before treatment. Click to enlarge.

This copy of Paré’s Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré came to the lab in rather sorry shape; it is a 17th century book that had been rebound at some point in its past. The new binding, or cover, was clearly made centuries after the book was created, and was damaged to the extent that handling the book was very difficult.  The usual practice in conservation is to use as many of the original parts as possible when repairing a book; in this case, however, the binding was not only heavily damaged, but inappropriate, so the decision was made to make a new binding for the book.

What kind of binding would be appropriate for a 17th century French book? Beyond historical appropriateness, we had to consider the functionality of the new binding as well. It is a rather large, heavy book; what would be best for a book of this size? How often would this book be used? How would it be stored?

We began with the first question of historical appropriateness. We are lucky to have access to the library’s rare book collection, and were able to find other books from the same time period and location, and study their bindings.  We also made use of our large collection of books about binding history, researched other libraries on-line bindings databases, and talked to colleagues.

Models of "semi-limp vellum" bindings

Models of “semi-limp vellum” bindings. Click to enlarge.

With these things in mind, we decided to explore the possibility of making a variation of what is called a “semi-limp vellum” binding.  Such bindings are commonly used in conservation, for their historical appropriateness and functionality.  With a little digging, a picture started to emerge for us of a typical French, 17th century vellum binding.  We did not find a lot of details about how these bindings were made, however.  It was very helpful to make a few small models before tackling the original book, to work out these details, and try variations to understand differences in functionality.

With all the knowledge we acquired from these models, and from our research, we can now approach this treatment with confidence. Les Oeuvres d’Ambroise Paré will have a well-thought out new binding which is faithful to its time period, and will protect it well, for years to come. Check back to read about the final stages of treatment and see pictures of the book in its new binding.