Preserving Memories: Paper Conservation Study in Italy

In summer 2018, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Paper Restoration course as part of the San Gemini Preservation Program in Italy. Perched on green rolling hills of the Umbria region, San Gemini is a small picturesque town about 90 minutes away from Rome. Walking on the old Via Flaminia in San Gemini, one can almost feel the hustling footsteps of Roman soldiers passing through the town two thousand years ago. Medieval churches, houses, and palazzo stand still as if time has not changed, except for the occasional reminders of the modern era such as cars meandering in the narrow cobblestone alleys.

This was the perfect backdrop for the four-week paper restoration course to study and appreciate the ancient traditions of papermaking. As we learned from the course, “papers are fragments of history. To preserve the paper is also to preserve the memory. Memory is fragile. Paper mediates between the past, the value of the present, and for the future.” Since the invention of paper in 2nd century China, paper has taken center stage as the primary writing support across many countries and cultures. Although digital technology is changing the modes of writing today, papers remain essential, holding irreplaceable memories of the world. Paper is also important material support for precious artwork, from Rembrandt’s engravings to Japanese Edo woodblock prints.

The intensive course offered an overview of paper restoration with all the key aspects, including papermaking methods, prints and printmaking, fiber identification, common paper problems, as well as conservation materials, equipment, and techniques. Alongside learning from valuable lectures with field experts, I also gained hands-on paper conservation training.

Closely guided by the course instructors, our class of 15 participants worked together on a professional conservation project to repair a set of 1768 Italian documents from the local archdiocese archives. This hands-on training with authentic historical documents was a rare and valuable experience. I learned and practiced the entire process of paper restoration: to identify the types of paper, watermark, and ink; to investigate damage and deterioration; to create a condition report; and to conduct repair treatments with appropriate equipment and solvents.

It was exhilarating, challenging, and rewarding to restore these fragile and unique historical documents. The priorities of conservation treatments are to retain, stabilize, and protect the paper documents in their originality while minimizing the risks of further damages.

For example, here is one of the five documents I repaired.

This 1768 ordination document is of Western antique handmade paper with handwritten text in iron gall ink. It showed signs of water damage, inactive mold, tears, paper losses, and fragility on the edges. For the paper conservation treatment, I performed dry surface cleaning on both the front and back of the document with soft brushes and akawipe powder. Using Japanese Tengujo paper and methyl cellulose with a variety of tools, I repaired tears, holes, and fragile areas on the back of the document.

The document after restoration treatment:

1768 Italian paper manuscript after repair_recto
Recto (front)
1768 Italian manuscript paper after repair_verso
Verso (back)
1768 Italian paper manuscript verso corner before repair
Verso corner on light table, before repair
1768 Italian paper manuscript verso corner after repair
View in normal light, after repair

Other highlights of the Paper Restoration course were the field trips to Fabriano and Perugia.

During the trip to Fabriano, an important town for handmade paper and watermark since Medieval Italy, we visited the Paper and Watermark Museum (Museo della Carta e della Filigrana). I particularly enjoyed the interactive tour, in which museum visitors could experience hands-on papermaking in the traditional way.

Rachel Wen-Paloutzian at Fabriano Papermaking Museum

Here I am with the Museum papermaking master, who guided me to collect wet paper pulp from the tub onto a metal screen with watermarks. Learning by doing is the best!

A special visit in the Perugia State Archives and Conservation Lab was very also insightful. Located in a former medieval Dominican monastery, the archives house numerous important documents, such as these beautiful Papal scrolls with elaborate decorative seals indicating their significant status.

Perugia State Archives

Reflecting on my experience, I find the San Gemini Paper Restoration course overwhelmingly positive, and I am very grateful for the opportunity to have studied abroad in Italy and advanced my professional training with archival materials. As the Special Collections Instruction Librarian at LMU, I look forward to integrating my learning into my work in teaching and curating rare materials, many of which are on paper. It is particularly beneficial to have foundational knowledge of conservation, especially when we work with conservators to responsibly steward our unique special collections, to understand conservation risks, to distinguish good and bad practices, and to make wise decisions. With knowledge and practice from the paper restoration course, I am inspired to cultivate a deeper interest in preserving papers as we preserve memories, individually and collectively.