Mending Split Wooden Boards on a 16th Century Binding of the Nuremberg Chronicle
Today’s post was written by Lou Di Gennaro, Special Collections Conservator in the Barbara Goldsmith Book & Paper Conservation Laboratory at Bobst Library
Much has already been written about the Liber Chronicarum better known to English speakers as the Nuremberg Chronicle. A simple Google search will bring up a myriad of information about the book’s history, production and distribution, as well as many images of the beautiful woodcuts. Printed in 1493, the Nuremberg Chronicle is a history of the world beginning with the Book of Genesis and continuing through biblical and Roman history to the early 1490s, detailing a number of important western cities. The book was one of the most heavily illustrated of its time and one of the first to successfully integrate illustrations with the text.
The text was written and compiled by Hartmann Schedel a physician, humanist and bibliophile living in Nuremberg. The layout and woodcuts were created by the workshop of Wolgemut and Pleydenwurff and the book was printed and distributed by printer and publisher Anton Koberger. The Nuremberg Chronicle was an enormous undertaking pulling together many different hand trades from papermakers, leather tanners, hand press printers, woodworkers and bookbinders.
The Fales Library and Special Collection’s volume of the Nuremberg Chronicle is bound in quarter alum-tawed pigskin, over painted beech wood boards. There are two decorative brass catch plates on the upper board and only one extant catch on the lower. The binding is thought to be from the late 1500s and is most likely the first and only binding of the text.
The pigskin is blind tooled with cameo and foliate rolls, typical of German bindings from this time. The black painted boards, however, are unusual. This might have been a regional style, the original owners aesthetic preference or an attempt by a bookseller to make the binding more attractive to potential buyers.
When the book came into the Conservation Lab, in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Department at NYU Bobst Library, there was a 31cm vertical split along the wood grain causing the upper board to flex due to the weight of the board upon opening. The long vertical split most likely occurred by the constrain placed on the wood by being bound at one end and clasped at the other, not allowing the wood to expand and contract with fluctuations in the environment.
On the lower board, there was a complex crack in the board from the bottom clasp to lower board edge. The nature of the damage here suggests the book probably was either banged or dropped on its lower corner sometime in its history.
Talking with Marvin Taylor, Head of Fales, Charlotte Priddle, Librarian for Printed Books in Fales, and Laura McCann, Conservation Librarian, about treatment options and how the Nuremberg Chronicle is utilized, I learned that the book is taken out and opened frequently during the semester. We all felt something needed to be done to reinforce and stabilize the damage to the wooden boards to promote safe usage and to prevent further detriment.
I was surprised to find little information in the book conservation literature about stabilizing and mending split wooden boards on books. I started asking people I knew in other related disciplines, like violin or furniture making, for advice about repair methods, but nothing seemed appropriate. Finally, I came across a comprehensive article by Alexis Hagadorn and Jeffrey Peachey, “The Use of Parchment to Reinforce Split Wooden Bookboards, with Preliminary Observations into the Effects of RH Cycling on these Repairs”. I decided to contact Jeff to discuss some of the methodology with me. We thought it best to look at the Nuremberg Chronicle together to get a clearer idea of the issues and concerns involved with the repair. After consulting with Jeff, Laura and I decided to invite Jeff to advise with the treatment.
Parchment and paper were materials traditionally used to mend and reinforce splits in bookboards for hundreds of years. The decision to use parchment was based on its inherent strength and durability, as well as the evidence of many examples of stable historic repairs. Parchment also seemed a sympathetic material to use with the 500-year-old binding on the Nuremberg Chronicle.
The pastedown on the lower board was released and a 20% gelatin solution was injected into the crack. The board was then aligned and set with clamps. The following day, parchment mends were prepared and adhered with gelatin, heavily worked into place.
This process was then repeated to treat the vertical split to the upper board. To complete the treatment, a new drop spine box was constructed to insure safe handling and to protect the Nuremberg Chronicle from possible environmental damage. I feel very fortunate to have been a part of preserving such an important work of world cultural heritage, and pleased the Nuremberg Chronicle is back in Fales, available for safe use by students and scholars.
Hagadorn, Alexis and Jeffrey S. Peachey “The Use of Parchment to Reinforce Split Wooden Bookboards, with Preliminary Observations into the Effects of RH Cycling on these Repairs”, Journal of the Institute of Conservation 33 (2010) pp. 41-63)
Szirmai, J.A. The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding. Brookfield, VT: Ashgate, 1999.
Wilson, Adrian. Making of the Nuremberg Chronicle. Amsterdam: Nico Israel, 1978.