When you’re flooded with work

Paolo Mascagni was a Tuscan doctor and anatomist who lived between the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries and worked mostly in Florence. His cultural legacy is highlighted by the publication of the “Anatomia”, a life-sized description of the human body famous for its hand-coloured plates. The book achieved great success among scholars of the time, and in 1833 a smaller version of his work, 47 centimetres high and nicknamed “the little anatomy”, was published posthumously.

The book is rich in engravings: in total we have 150 of them. Half are partially coloured and the other 75 are black-and-white line drawings. The latter were intended to make the anatomical structure more clear, by the incorporation of a strict reference to the text, using a series of letters and numbers. The use of colour was very important for showing the differences between distinct organs and body tissues, but at the time a technique of printing in colour with accuracy had not yet been perfected. Hence the plates were coloured by hand at the typographer. Some copies were left uncolored, however, to be sold at a lower price.

The Florentine Institute and Museum of the History of Science, now the Galileo Museum, had their hand-coloured copy of the little anatomy on display on the ground floor when, in the early hours of 4th November 1966, the Arno River flood hit the city. As is well known, books were salvaged and processed in a variety of ways at the time. Museums, libraries and archives were forced to make difficult choices about which items could be saved, concentrating the available resources on them. The little anatomy, big and heavy, was taken out of the mud, interleaved with filter paper and covered with sawdust to reduce humidity, but was then left untouched because it was considered irretrievably lost. It was placed in a cardboard box and put into storage.

The museum decided to attempt the conservation of Mascagni’s book in 2014, following a successful crowdfunding campaign. When it arrived at my workshop, the situation was desperate indeed: the leaves were stuck to one another in big chunks, the ink from the plates had offset to neighbouring pages and it was covered in hardened mud and sawdust.


The little anatomy as it arrived at the workshop


Following the standard photo documentation, we began separating groups of leaves with spatulas and lancets, whenever there was an easy path to follow. In some cases, smaller blocks of paper needed to sit in humidification chambers for up to six hours to soften the paper and thinner layers of mud, a process that had to be repeated frequently in order to obtain some degree of response from the textblock. The original binding had been lost, but there were traces of sewing over tapes with no links between sections other than the kettle stitches. This faulty sewing, however, made disassembling the book easier.


A washing tray and a glass plate became a very efficient humidification chamber

Next, we opened smaller blocks of paper, sometimes bifolia and sometimes single leaves, and removed the hardened mud from the surface of the leaves. Dry cleaning proceeded with crumbled vinyl erasers. Vinyl erasers (Staedler, Mars) have been our choice for surface cleaning since the Canadian Conservation Institute published their results on research done on a number of erasers.1 They are free of sulphur compounds and contain calcium carbonate crystals, which is a plus when you think of the residues potentially trapped within the paper fibres after cleaning is done.

Two of the many separated blocks of paper after humidification


A cheese grater helped to make fine crumbles, which were used over the coloured areas whenever possible. Areas with pigments that had turned to powder, having lost part of their binder during the flood, were avoided altogether.


Other examples of blocks of leaves released from the book



Removal of hardened mud from the surface of the pages


Black-and-white plates and text leaves were then washed in lukewarm water and the surface was gently brushed to remove as much as possible of the thin layer of mud that discoloured the paper.


Days of careful washing and back pain…


Cleaning tests were carried out on the coloured plates by using fine brushes to apply two to three layers of 35% w/v cyclodecane in trichloroethylene. Cyclododecane is well researched in our field and has proven to be very reliable over the years: it consolidates pigments in place, is not soluble in polar solvents and after a few weeks has completely sublimated2 out of the paper. A non-polar solvent with a high vapour pressure, which evaporated quickly and allowed the building-up of layers of cyclododecane was an easy choice to make. When examination under the microscope showed no more bleeding of the colours in water, the remainder of the coloured plates were washed in the same way.


Some examples of black-and-white plates and text once bound



Two coloured plates after conservation and binding


Sizing with methyl cellulose, mending and filling with Japanese papers over a light table and flattening under weights followed. Together with the museum’s librarians, it was decided to construct a book that would open easily and allow for digitization and consultation without stressing either text or plates. The leaves were mounted on Hahnemühle 150 gsm cotton paper guards with gluten-free wheat starch paste (zin shofu) and sewn over alum-tawed goatskin strips reinforced with linen tapes. The spine was lined with both a thinner Hosokawa paper and a heavier Hahnemühle one. Again, zin shofu was the adhesive of choice. The book was then given a semi-limp goat parchment cover.


Leaves guarded with cotton paper, ready for binding


The finished product

The little anatomy now lies on its own shelf back at the library. By the end of the entire conservation campaign, we had extracted a little over one kilogram of dried mud from it. I believe Paolo Mascagni would be happy with the results.

All images ©Claudius Schettino, courtesy of Biblioteca del Museo Galileo, Florence.

Claudius Schettino obtained a degree in Museum Studies from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He then studied the conservation of paper, parchment and leather in Amsterdam, at the Central Research Laboratory for Objects of Art and Science. He has taken courses on the science of the conservation of cultural property at the ICCROM in Rome and the University of Florence, amongst others, and has interned at the City Archive in Amsterdam, the State Archive in Maastricht, the York Archaeological Trust in York (UK), the State Archive in Florence and the National Library in Florence. He has been in private practice in Florence since 1992.


1 CCI’s Technical Bulletin11: Dry Methods for Surface Cleaning of Paper. Plus: CCI’s Analytical Research Services (ARS), Conservation Material Report Summary ARS 1738.–ARS 2376, ARS 2445, and ARS 2688, 1981, 1985 and 1988.

There is much debate in the conservation world about the terms “sublimate” and “evaporate”. Under a vacuum, ice sublimates into water vapour directly, without heat. When heat is applied it evaporates, first having become water. Cyclododecane is a “waxy” solid that “disappears” by itself without heat being involved, hence the use of the term “sublimate” in this instance.

5 thoughts on “When you’re flooded with work

  1. Truly amazing work Claudius!!
    I would like to ask you about both alum-tawed goat skin and parchment. Can you source good ones in Italy? I am getting more and more concerned about the quality of the bookbinding material available to us conservators nowadays and I wonder if we all share the same apprehension, not only in Europe, but also around the world?


  2. Thank you all for the kind comments. Answering Stefania: I go to a small, one-man tannery in the Marche region to choose my alum tawed goat skins in person. They’re made in small batches by Maurizio Zampini in Esanatoglia. He also makes very good parchment from goat skins.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.