State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 45 Autumn 1990


The Conservation Treatment of Scriptores Historiae Augustae

The Scriptores Historiae Augustae which has been owned by the State Library of Victoria since 1947, began its journey in 1478 of the Julian calendar with the following words [in Latin] of its colophon:
In the 1478th year from the incarnation of the Lord and on the 21st day of January this work, very famous in the land of Florence, was finished on Jove's day (Thursday) with the proper prayer for the 21st day:
Praise, Honour, Power and glory to the Almighty Jesus Christ through the everlasting age of the ages. Amen.
Omnium Rerum Vicissitiudo Est
— Change is of all things.
The Scribe who used this colophon is believed to be Neri Rinuccini — he appears to be the only one of this time using the Omnium Rerum motto. Cecilia O'Brien furthers Rinuccini's case, citing an ‘Omnium Rerum’ manuscript in the Paris Bibliotheque Nationale which has been signed by Rinuccini.1
The illuminations in the Manuscript are believed to be from the workshop of Mariano del Buono di Jacopo. O'Brien states that the mixture of tradition and innovation are best explained by this choice, as Mariano owed much to the example of older illuminators such as Varnucci as well as sharing commissions with a younger generation of Florentine illuminators, including Gherardo del Fora and Attavante.2
The binder is not known, but it is to him, and to the Manuscript's owners through the ages that we owe so much, not for protecting the magnificent work of Rinuccini and Mariano, but for giving us the opportunity to view a 15th Century book with its original binding in total, demonstrating the techniques, the materials and the book construction of the day.

Structure of the book

The textblock is contained in 22 quires, each of 5 folios of calf vellum, except the last quire which is of only three folios. The vellum folios have been placed in their quires with flesh side to flesh side and hair side to hair side. They have been cut so that the spine of the skin runs at right angles (rather than the more conventional parallel) to the spine of the Manuscript. Notably, this Manuscript has very little of the wrinkling and cockling associated with paper text blocks that have been folded against the grain.
The folios have been numbered with signatures of a letter and then numerals 1 to 5 and a + (plus or cross) sign to indicate their sequence in the quire. Only a few examples of these quire signatures remain, due to trimming prior to edge gilding, but the best is illustrated in the “q” or 16th quire, with its leaves q1 to 15 and the plus sign. The sewing of the quire went into the fold between the q5 and the plus sign. The last quire, it should be noted, is the “y” or 22nd quire, having only 3 folios, and is marked accordingly — y1, y2, y3, +.
The sequence of the quires is indicated by the use of a catchword which occurs at the end of each quire and which is repeated at the top of the next page.
The scribe's rulings for the text were blind lines created by pushing or ruling a tool on the flesh side of the skin, in line with the prickings at either side of the folio or at the top and bottom of the folio. The blind lines created are quite difficult to see except under raking illumination, and it is well to bear in mind that the scribe had either natural light or candle by which to write, making the accuracy of the resultant hand a considerable feat. Thirty-six lines of text were used, with all bar one of the illuminated initials standardized to 6 lines high. The exception is the ‘O’ on the title page which is larger.
In conjunction with the pigments used in the illuminations, gold has been used both as a paint and as a metal leaf gilding material. The gold leaf has survived very well, with only a few areas where damage has occurred, mainly due to handling rather than the illuminator's lack of skill. In fact, the skill of the illuminator can be seen where he has applied paint to a background of goldleaf.
Anyone who has tried gilding in any shape or form will know the difficulty in achieving an unblemished surface without the added difficulty of applying many fine lines of paint to the surface. The gold paint also represents a high level of achievement, as it was made from powdering gold and then holding it in suspension which more often than not would separate into its components. The paint in this Manuscript appears very consistent and represents a technical achievement in the area.

Robin Tail analysing illuminations under stereo microscope; purchased with generous assistance of the William Angliss (Victoria) Charitable Fund. Photo: DGH.

After sewing on 5 flat alum-tawed thongs, the edges of the text were trimmed and gilded. The edges have also been gauffered (decorated with a hot brass tool to create an impression on the vellum edge), but it is not known when this was done during the binding of the Historiae Augustae. In binding today it is normally left till after all the finishing (gold tooling and decorative work) has been done.
The thongs have been laced into wooden boards, as have the alum-tawed cores of the head and tail bands. Channels were cut into the wooden boards to accommodate the thongs, and there is evidence of “filler” of a sort to reduce gaps between the channels and the thongs. The channels for the thongs commence in the middle of the thickness of the board, then angle to the outside of the board, then go down through the thickness of the board to the underside. The presence of a third hole into which the thongs were “pegged” could not be determined. The head and tail band cores consist of pieces of alum-tawed pigskin and are of simple construction. To support the bands a piece of leather was put on the spine at each end then sewn over. The tie-downs for the head and tail bands are in the middle of every quire just past the kettle stitch; they were sewn after the quire.
The wooden boards have been bevelled on three edges tapering to the outside to reduce some of the thickness.
The book has not been rounded or backed as there is no joint or shoulder evident. The boards in fact sit right to the edge of the spine and place enormous stress on the thongs in this position, particularly when the book is opened.
Once the boards were laced onto the text, the head and tails bands completed and their ends laced into the boards, the covering of leather could be done. No spine linings, other than a coat of animal glue were used, and the leather (from either a sheep or deer) was applied directly to the spine using animal glue or paste as the adhesive. To accommodate the head and tail band cores, a cut or cuts were made in the covering leather in order for it to turn under to form the head and tail caps. Each corner of the leather was also cut to form a “tongue” before being turned in. The book does not appear to have been tied up around its raised bands while it dried, as the leather either side of these is not well attached. The head and tail caps were fairly casually formed at this point, and the whole book left to dry.
Once dry, the leather was blind tooled using various single hand tools, fillets, creasers and decorative pieces. The front and back boards were tooled identically, whereas the spine had a double line outlining a diamond pattern on it between the raised bands on the panel.
The clasps, four in all, were then added to the front and back boards. The marking on the back boards indicates that the missing back clasps were quite likely made of metal, whereas it can be seen that the front clasps were made of a leather band nailed to the front board.
The end folios at the front and the rear were then put down onto their respective boards. The completed book was handed over to the Patron, who in all probability was Lorenzo Medici (Lorenzo the Magnificent).


Over the years of successive ownership the binding has suffered damage largely from use rather than mishandling. Fortunately no attempts at restoration or rebinding were made.
The greatest area of damage is evident at the front inner joint where the thongs have broken and abrasion has damaged the title page illumination. Why the thongs have broken is perhaps best explained by the fact that most wooden-boarded books, due to their construction and board attachment, never did open flat as we expect books to open today. The rear board attachment of the Historiae Augustae which is not broken at the joint displays this well. By being opened flat and then pushed into a flat position the front end folio has been separated from the text and the thongs have been broken. The pressure has then been on the covering leather alone to hold the heavy wooden board in place.
A previous clumsy attempt has been made to inpaint the damage to the title page illumination and the resulting green is not a good match with the original. The banners on the title page with the motto on it have also suffered from either overpainting or exposure to hydrogen sulphide, causing the pigment to turn grey. Other interference with the illuminations has not been detected; however, during the gilding of the letters, those done on the flesh side of the vellum have invariably struck through to the text on the hair side.
The text has suffered several tears, fortunately in the margins, as well as large folds which generally ran from the top to the bottom of the page through the text. In these instances serious abrasion has occurred to the writing. The text also contained a degree of debris in the gutter margins and numerous dirty, sometimes indelible fingerprints, which — if we use our imagination — could have been a youthful Michelangelo.
The binding has suffered general wear and tear, such as scuffs in the leather as well as more serious damage caused by insects eating the glues and pastes on both the spine and the front and rear end folios.
The piece of cloth at the head of the binding is at first appearance a clumsy attempt to mend the binding, and it certainly has kept the head of the binding together. This is in fact a marker used in the Medici Library to denote a history classification; the Historiae Augustae certainly falls into this category.

Conservation Treatment

The treatment of this work has been a challenge. The brief prepared by the Conservation Department of the State Library outlined that the rentention of the original binding structure was necessary. This requirement has been fulfilled and the Historiae Augustae has been placed back in the realm of gentle use.
The first part of the treatment involved brushing out the text and removing small accretions on the vellum. The illuminations and text were not touched. A Mars Staedtler eraser was also used to try to remove some of the more conspicuous fingerprints and general dirt, but with only moderate success.
The small tears were mended using collagen skin and starch paste. The vellum was first relaxed using water and a small pressing system of reemay, mount board and weights before the collagen was applied.
The next stage of the treatment involved the mending and insertion of an extra leaf of vellum. The extra leaf was inserted under the existing front end folio and was tipped to the wooden board. The original leaf was then pasted onto the new leaf to repair insect holes in the joint and to protect the title page, as the previous endfolio of vellum had become quite stiff.
The tailband was then replaced using an alum-tawed pigskin core and linen thread. Before sewing, the spine was lined with a piece of archive text and leather to provide the support strip for the tailband, which was then sewn using a linen thread. The tailband was sewn without a front bead to match the head band.
In order to maintain the original structure of the bindings, the crux of this treatment was the task of rejoining the thongs. A number of possibilities was considered; however, the most appealing and the most effective proved to be a technique of suturing the thongs together using a polyester thread. The stitch used is a very simple one used by dentists, surgeons and veterinarians to close incisions after surgery. In this case, a small half-circle needle was used and four sutures per thong were put in and tied with a reef knot. The end folio was then sewn through using an unbleached hemp thread, which was adhered to the spine. Archive text was used to cover the exposed thongs between endfolio and the title page.
The damage to the outer joints at the head and tail was repaired using a new piece of leather shaped to fit under the split leather. Goatskin was chosen as it has been shown to be extremely durable as opposed to the weak sheep leathers of today.
The corners and holes on the covers were filled using fleshings from the goatskin, and then covered with patches of goatskin pared thinly. Once dry, these repairs were toned to match the original leather cover.
The holes of the endfolios were repaired using vellum, and where possible the repair patches have been placed under the original vellum, except in cases where in doing so, the original sewing or structure was threatened.
The final treatment to be carried out was the consolidation of the brittle pigments on the title page, using a technique developed by Robert Futernick, of the San Francisco Fine Arts Museums. This technique involves the use of a non-aqueous solvent to saturate the pigment articles and the application of a water-based adhesive to attach the saturated pigments to the support. In this case, the solvent used was petroleum spirit 40–60 Boiling Point and the adhesive used was a 1%w/v methyl cellulose. This worked extremely well, with no resultant sheen of the methyl cellulose on the pigment areas due to the repulsion of the water-based adhesive of the solvent.
A buckram box with felt pads was constructed to house the book and with good storage and careful handling the Scriptores Historiae Augustae will be available for many people to enjoy in the years to come.
The author would like to thank Maggie Rozanski for her invaluable assistance in preparing this article for publication.
Robin Taits


A more detailed description of the manuscript can be found in: Manion, Margaret M. and Vera F. Vines Medieval and Renaissance Illuminated Manuscripts in Australian Collections. (Thames and Hudson 1984) pp89–90.