Saturday, February 23, 2002

Doing right by the books


15th-century relic rebound

By Richelle Thompson
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Even though she knew she shouldn't, Sister Deborah Harmeling couldn't help it: She judged a book by its cover.

[photo] Patience and skill are needed for Gabrielle Fox to rebind artifacts like this manuscript, The Works of St. Augustine.
(Tony Jones photo)
| ZOOM |
        The original manuscript from the 1400s is a treasure of the Eugene H. Maly Memorial Library at the Athenaeum of Ohio-Mount St. Mary's Seminary.

        Prayers of the Blessed Virgin are handwritten in elaborate script, a curl or flourish transforming letters into art. Gold rims the edges of the parchment.

        While the pages harken to the days when books were precious, the cover told a different story. The spine and front cover were broken off. The 19th-century binding held the pages too tightly, so the manuscript couldn't completely open.

        Sister Harmeling, a Benedictine from the St. Walburg Monastery in Villa Hills, Ky., showed this manuscript and others in the library's rare book collection to tour groups. But the sad shape of the cover didn't do the manuscript justice.

        She wanted to restore the manuscript to what it would have looked like when it was written, not the stiff boards used to rebind it some 400 years later.

        She turned to a professional.

        Gabrielle Fox earned a bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Cincinnati, but by the time she graduated in 1978, she was more interested in the physical aspects of books.

        Ms. Fox studied book binding in England for two years.

        Restoring a manuscript like those from the seminary library requires patience and skill.

        “I still get scared working on things like that,” says Ms. Fox, 46 of Hyde Park. “I have this awful feeling I might sneeze at the wrong time.”

        In her Mount Lookout studio, Ms. Fox carefully removes the covers, then uses paste to clean the spine of the old cloth and paper. Often pages are sewn together, and she has to pull out the threads. Sometimes the parchment is torn and needs repairs.

        She re-sews the pages with linen thread. For the Blessed Virgin prayer book, Ms. Fox fashioned a spine from goat skin and covers from calf skin, animal skins less likely to damage the pages. The spine and covers are attached with ties of goat skin. The ties also wrap around buttons of elk horn to close the book.

        Rebuilding the manuscript took 25 hours and at a discount, cost the library between $500 and $600. The library commissioned Ms. Fox to rebuild and restore three manuscripts, all more than 400 years old.

        The manuscripts likely would fetch a high price on the market. Single pages of similar manuscripts have sold for thousands of dollars, Sister Harmeling says.

        Taking care of these manuscripts promotes the “idea of a book as not just a content provider, but a work of art,” Sister Harmeling says. “These are unique in all the world. There is no other manuscript like it.”
       



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