An Ailing Herbal Comes to Conservation Lab

This book first came to the attention of Martin Rare Book Librarian Donna Hirst when a patron requested to see some of the herbals in the collection. The poor book had been overlooked, though at one time it appears to have seen a lot if use. Or maybe just a lot of neglect. Donna Hirst sent this to the lab for Conservator Emeritus Gary Frost to shore up. While Gary treats this book and gets it to a more handleable condition, I will shadow him and attempt to discover a little bit about this book—where it may have been bound, how typical of an example it is, its condition and what is to be done about it.

The book is a 1626  Frankfurt imprint of Pier Andrea Mattioli’s herbal, originally written in Italian nearly 75 years earlier as a commentary on Diosordies’ De Materia Medica. In 1556 an illustrated edition was published and began to be translated into other languages and widely published. An herbal is a book on plants usually with visual and written descriptions, as well as medicinal, horticultural, and preparatory information.  This particular book is large and has color illustrations, but without much notation.

As you can see from the following images, the book has a rather sorry appearance. The spine has gone concave and is partly exposed. The alum taw (the book covering material) is soiled and has torn along the board edges. Part of the rear board is long missing. The spine liners of parchment are curling away and one of the endbands is gone. Many interior pages are ripped, soiled and have large losses, especially in the first and last few signatures.

Although the initial reaction may be one of disgust or sorrow for the book’s condition, it seems to be the original binding and the condition itself can reveal much about the book’s history. Stay tuned!