On November the 4th 1966, the river Arno flooded into Florence burying hundreds of thousands of books, manuscripts and artwork beneath mud, debris and putrid water. Due to this massive cultural and historical devastation, countries responded quickly with financial aid and restoration research. It became imperative to combine modern science with historical book making techniques in order to save and restore the damaged antiquarian books and manuscripts. Experimental research was used from The Institute of Book Pathology in Rome, and The Imperial College of Science and Technology in association with The Royal College of Art in London.
Damaged books were given emergency washing and drying treatments and then sterilised against bacteria and mould. The edges of a lot of books were badly stuck with mud, gelatine and sawdust. The covers/boards, spines, headbands and everything surrounding the text block were removed and catalogued in envelopes. Once the spine was clear the sewing was cut from the spines and the sections separated carefully. Mud was scraped from the leaves of the book, and especially bad books were soaked in an alcohol and water mixture and then interwoven with wet strength paper and washed again. Coloured plates and prints were sprayed with a solution of soluble nylon in alcohol to preserve them. Any oil that may have damaged the books was removed with a solution of xylene and trichloroethylene. Fuller’s Earth was applied delicately and brushed off to remove excess chemical solution and oil.
Thermostatically controlled, stainless steel, sinks were used to wash the books leaf by leaf in a fungicide solution. Some particularly fragile leaves were resized. pH tests were conducted and if a book had too much acidity, it was deacidified. Bleach staining is not considered good practice, and was limited to the leaves that were so stained that the text was illegible. The individual leaves were dried at controlled temperatures in specially made drying cabinets. Once dry, the leaves were checked and put in order. (Plates and prints were handled separately to the main text blocks as extra care had to be taken due to the colours.)
Before sewing and binding could take place, repairs were made to the leaves caused by the flood and early binding techniques. Lens tissue was used for small tears, and Japanese tissue paper was used for serious tears and missing sections of leaves.
Books were sewn back together with thread and techniques dependent on their size and publication date. Appropriate bindings were also chosen depending on the use of the book and its time period. The majority of the damaged Antonio Magliabechi manuscripts and volumes from the National Library of Florence were bound in limp vellum. Other rare books required new leather bindings.
The restoration of books, manuscripts, art and historical artefacts from the 1966 flood is still an ongoing process today. Many people had to be trained specially to restore books on site in Florence, as shipping damaged books to experts across the world was deemed to be impractical and quality could not be controlled. There was also the risk that the books would be lost or damaged further in transit.
Floods and natural disasters cause widespread damage but are fortunately not that common. Some books are damaged over time due to use and age. Working in a second-hand bookshop, I see a lot of old books that are damaged; missing spines and boards, detached boards, bumped corners, missing labels and stained. Modern books are notoriously poor quality and tend to fall apart easily in comparison to their sewn, medieval ancestors. There is a genuine calling for restoration and book binding experts. Some old books are scarce, and some books have signatures or notes in their margins from historically important people which make them unique and irreplaceable. For the individual, books passed down through the generations hold significant sentimental value and may need repairs or complete new bindings. If history teaches us anything, it is that we need to continue to find methods and solutions to protect and save items of historical importance.
The Restoration of Books: Florence – 1968. – YouTube
The Disaster that Deluged Florence’s Cultural Treasures – HISTORY
The great flood of Florence, 50 years on | Art and design | The Guardian