The San Gemini Conservation and History of Book Structures Course – a teacher’s view by Flavio Marzo

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Palazzo Vecchio, San Gemini. Copyright Flavio Marzo

San Gemini Preservation Studies is a summer field school that organises lectures, research, fieldwork, workshops and fieldtrips in the disciplines of historic preservation, restoration and conservation. It is located in central Italy, in the city of San Gemini in Umbria. Flavio Marzo, tutor of one of the courses, talks about his teaching experience

The programme is the result of the collaboration between scholars from various international universities, institutions and local preservation groups, fostering a multidisciplinary approach to historic preservation. All the academic activities are run in English.
In 2013, a new course on the history of book structures and their conservation was added to the curriculum in order to complement the one already existing focusing on the conservation of art on paper.
I was the tutor of the course - I am a book conservation manager at the British Library and have been working in London since 2005 having moved from Italy where I graduated in book and paper conservation.
I have been teaching book conservation and running workshops since 2006, and in 2011 I was approached by Max Cardillo, Director of the San Gemini Preservation Studies Programme, who offered me the opportunity to start a new course on history of book structures and their conservation/restoration.
It was obviously an extremely interesting and flattering offer but also a very challenging one. Teaching is complex, especially without a ‘proper’ academic background; teaching conservation is even more complicated because you have to be able to create a successful and appropriate balance between theory and practical exercises most of all make it reach a professional standard.

My past teaching experiences focussed on organising short workshops customised for professionals interested in practising specific historical bookbinding techniques; the course I was asked to prepare for the San Gemini School was a month-long introduction to the conservation and history of book structures, a very different proposition altogether!
The first year being now over, I can say that, after receiving feedback from my students that the challenge was quite successfully overtaken.
The aim of the course is to offer people from different backgrounds an exhaustive overview of what book conservation and book history.
One month can be a very short time when you’re trying to condense information that could easily fill a three year course with, so what I decided to do was to collect as much material as possible from my past professional experiences and to organise it in a way that was meaningful to and understandable by students with different level of expertise and backgrounds.
I believe that a good balance between theory and practice is essential if you want to gain a real understanding of book structures. The physicality of books is still perceived as a secondary feature; for many institutions it is not yet a priority to provide training on conservation and preservation issues.
Therefore I organised the classes in the mornings of presentations about the history of the book and the theory of restoration/conservation and afternoons of practical workshops.
Morning theoretical sessions were supported by video and audio material specifically prepared for the course
Luckily in 20 my year’s career I have been able to collect a vast amount of material and documentation comprising of interesting case studies from the various collections I have been working on (Italy, UK, Greece, and Egypt). This has been the source from where I collected and organised the material that I have decided to share with my students. There is a lot that can be taught from literature but many of the things I talk about come from my personal working experience.
The course has been structured to cover the history of the codex from its appearance in the western world up to modern times. The majority of the material used has western roots but I also included material on eastern and Islamic traditions.
The first weeks were spent mostly on the history of western book structures and the production of facsimiles of historical sewing structures.
The use of different materials and techniques and their impact on the final result were examined and discussed along the way, including the making of dummies and the comparison with known available literature sources.

In this first year we were able to create four different facsimiles of historical sewing structures up to their full coverings and decoration.
It was a real challenge and I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the amazing commitment of my students and the quality of the final results. On top of the practical sessions that included the making of the

facsimiles, the course gave us the opportunity to work in the local historical archive, where an absolutely amazing historical collection of manuscripts and printed books is kept and preserved.
Working on originals consisted of preparing detailed condition and structural assessments of some of the most interesting pieces housed in the archive. Those items were analysed and possible conservation treatments proposals were drawn up.
This exercise proved extremely useful because it gave the students the opportunity to work along with professional conservators while also providing the chance to observe and study original material and their physical features, practiced previously on the facsimiles (some of the manuscripts in the collection date back to the XIV century).
After the assessment different kind of protective enclosures for library and archive material were created by the students, some to be kept with their own facsimiles and other, prepared with archival material, to be used for the housing of the original manuscripts previously analysed.
Along with the visits to the local archive, all the different aspects of preventive and non-invasive conservation techniques were presented to the students through presentations and discussions. Environmental control practices, minimal and in-situ interventive techniques, re-housing solutions and pest control monitoring exercises were described and discussed with the students during the morning sessions.
Preventive conservation trainings, focussing on handling techniques, together with the theory of workflows optimisation in libraries, were also topics covered during the last two weeks.
An on-going digitisation project involving the local archive collection has also provided the opportunity for the students to develop and apply some tools on how to mitigate possible risks associated with digitisation processes.
Together with my own month-long contribution to the course, other colleagues from British and Italian institutions were brought in to share their experiences and to teach specific topics like parchment conservation and box-making techniques.
At the end of the month, a visit to the Vatican Library conservation studio was organised. This trip gave the students the opportunity to speak to other book conservators in their working environment and to visit a fully equipped professional book, paper and parchment conservation studio.

I am obviously very happy about my experience but I am even more satisfied as a result of the feedback I received from my students.
The heterogeneous background of the students from emerging professionals to seasoned practitioners created an atmosphere filled with very different expectations.
Regardless of backgrounds and expectations, everyone was able to gain a new perspective on library and archival material and gained new knowledge that was relevant for their own specific needs.
Some of the students will decide to join the conservation profession, other will use what they have learned to care for the collections they are responsible for, and some will simply add a new skill to their academic curricula.
However the aim of the course was not to form fully trained book conservators but simply to change the perception of books and their physicality and give an understanding of what it’s involved in caring for them. I hope and believe that we achieved that aim.

For more information about the courses and how to book for future sessions go to

All images used in this article are courtesy of Flavio Marzo, all rights reserved