Ed. note: Readers of The Gathering know that we like to explore the width and breadth of the conservation world. We have investigated objects, techniques, tools and tips, and now it’s time to shine the spotlight on our heritage colleagues in our new series, ‘Under Raking Light’.
Under Raking Light’s first specimen is Flavio Marzo from the British Library.
What brought you here?
Gosh, this could take forever! I am my most beloved topic, but I will try to keep it brief! I was a ‘temperamental, hyperactive’ boy living in the Italian Alps, in a little village called Novalesa (Turin), surrounded by stunning snowy peaks, woods and a small, ancient Benedictine monastery. The monastery was reopened in 1973 by four quite mad monks from Venice who were also restoring the books. I worked there as a teenager, first for the love of the place and then for the love of books. I graduated from Spoleto in 1999 and interned for six months with the late, great Christopher Clarkson. My move to the British Library, where I have worked since 2005, happened a bit randomly – mostly because I needed new challenges.
Tell us about your current project
As Conservation Manager for the British Library and Qatar Foundation Partnership, I have been digitising material on the history of the Persian Gulf from the India Office Records and 9th- to 19th-century Arabic scientific manuscripts.1 The project is a self-contained, very diverse world of nearly 50 conservators, curators, cataloguers, IT staff, copyright experts and photographers, all working together on the 6th floor of the British Library’s main building. This variety of expertise is the strength of the project, and it is mentally healthy to work with people who are not all focused on the same topics and interests. The project has helped me understand the different aspects of, and interdependencies between, digitisation workflow stages.
Digitisation widens the outreach of material through the creation of online surrogates, but it is also a valuable preventive preservation tool for the objects. The mass processing of material has made us modify our approach to a large-scale, customised intervention, focusing on treatments to stabilise damaged items, minimise risks and improve housing – an approach that fits perfectly within the idea of ‘minimal intervention’.
When you tell people what you do for a living, they…
… say “What a strange job!”, and immediately after that, “I am sure you need a lot of patience.” So, yes, I suppose I learnt patience since I started doing what I do in a Benedictine monastery.
Tell us about your most memorable project, for better or worse
When the British Library was looking at purchasing the seventh-century St Cuthbert Gospel, which it did in 2012 for £9 million2, I was appointed to report to the Acquisition Panel on the condition and possible handling issues for this famous codex, considered to be the earliest-surviving Western binding. After carrying out a very thorough risk assessment and mitigation report, I proposed that the binding should not be conserved, even if it was damaged. To illustrate my point, I constructed a facsimile of the sewing, with identical damage, and a leather cover for the panel to handle, so that these experts could directly experience the amazing characteristics of an unsupported Coptic sewing structure. This was an important opportunity to show how the expertise of a conservator can add to the understanding of objects, and how our knowledge of physical features can inform controversial decisions, such as in this case, where the possible restoration of an object would have destroyed the damage that was an integral part of its history. It was also an incredible learning opportunity for me, as I assisted in the examination of the binding that was carried out by Nicholas Pickwoad and the late Christopher Clarkson.
Bone or teflon?
Both, because conservators should be free to choose the right tool from as wide a range of options as possible. Conservators sometimes tend to be ‘black or white’ in their preferences, but I strongly champion all of the greys in between. Only knowledge and understanding of what to choose, and when, makes us serious professionals.
What do you think is underestimated in conservation?
Conservation is a supporting and empowering element of cultural heritage that does not slow down workflows, but enables them and helps to achieve better results. This is the biggest, and maybe the most exciting, challenge conservation faces today: we are in an economic age when cuts are applied to conservation departments. We are perceived as inefficient and surplus to requirements, so we conservators must prove how essential we actually are to accessing objects with historical worth. Our expertise enhances objects’ contextual and physical value, enabling their safe use and showing a more complete picture.
What piece(s) of equipment would you buy first in a new studio?
A large, height-adjustable table with a storage area underneath. Space is always the issue!
What do you think is an apt anthem for conservation?
‘I Will Survive’ by Gloria Gaynor.3 On top of being a great song, it helps the mood every time I look at my bank account and I think about how much conservators are paid!
Hands-down best course you have ever attended?
That would be every chance I had to work with Christopher Clarkson, especially when he taught me how to make a limp vellum binding. His precision and astonishing mastery of his craft will stay with me forever as the summit of what I would love to achieve. It was a blessing both to be able to witness him working and to be taught by such a great master.
What keeps you awake at night?
I honestly sleep quite well and snore, my partner says, but recently I have been kept awake by the present political situation: this really has jeopardised my peace and damaged my night’s sleep!
Favourite museum, library or archive and why?
I recently visited Rome, where, on the last day of my bookbinding course4, we took our students to visit historical libraries and meet the librarians. The Vallicelliana Library in the centre of Rome is an absolute wonder. Its main monumental reading room was designed by Borromini in the 17th century, and its book collection was entirely re-bound in vellum to match the wall colour. This was an amazing example of how the cover of a book can actually be an integral part of its history if contextualised within its historical environment.
Please share the most interesting photo you have taken recently.
This is Vallicelliana’s reading room with San Gemini Preservation Studies students admiring and tweeting about it!
Thanks, Flavio, for being The Gathering’s guinea pig, and you look great on the Vespa! To the rest of you reading this, think you or a colleague has an interesting story to tell? Let us share it with the world by putting you Under Raking Light.
- Qatar Digital Library
- ‘British Library announces £9m campaign to acquire the St Cuthbert Gospel – the earliest intact European book’
‘British Library acquires the St Cuthbert Gospel – the earliest intact European book‘
- ‘I Will Survive’
- San Gemini Preservation Studies: The Craft of Making and Restoring Book Bindings