Communion Of Dreams

Original 1480 binding.

Been a little while since I did a book conservation post. So let’s have some fun.

Recently I had this item come in for some minor work:  Summa contra gentiles by Thomas Aquinas, printed in Venice in 1480. That makes it an incunabula, one of the relatively rare books published before 1501 (in this case, just a quarter century or so after the Gutenberg Bible).  Even more noteworthy, this book is still in its original binding. And that binding is in remarkably good condition.

Here’s a pic of the outside of the binding:

Full front

Lovely. And an excellent example of bindings of that period. That’s the front cover, a nice very deep red (almost a dark brown to the eye) in goatskin. What I love is the way the binder used fairly simple tools to create an elaborate cover design. Here’s a detail:

Front detail

And the hardware is wonderful, too. Here’s a detail of the front clasp hardware:

Front hardware

That clasp was designed to receive a simple hook attached to a leather strap mounted on the back, here:

Rear hardware

Also, take note of the delightful small brass strip mounted on the corners:

Front corner

There’s a similar strip mounted to the bottom (called the “tail” in bookbinding) edge of the covers, near the spine of the book on both the front and rear. That protects the cover from excessive wear when the book would be resting in a lectern or something similar for reading (books in this time period were usually shelved on their side):

Rear bottom edge

Cool, eh? But the real treasure of this binding was revealed when I removed the (probably) 19th century endpapers which had been added. Under that was the original structure of the book, showing both the original boards (probably quarter-sawn oak) as well as the way the supporting strips of alum-tawed goatskin of the sewing structure was laced into those boards. Here’s an overview:

Interior full

And here’s a detail showing how the supporting strips were lain within a small channel carved into the wooden board covers, and then pinned in place using a softer wood or (in this case) other leather:

Interior mounting

But equally cool is a detail shot showing the simplicity of how the leather cover comes around the corner of the board:

Interior board detail

Lastly, here’s a little detail from one sheet inside:

Interior vellum

It’s a little hard to tell what it is you’re seeing there, so let me explain. The darker strip is the outside edge of a piece of vellum which has been adhered to the spine of the text block. This was added *before* the supporting strips of alum-tawed goatskin were laced into the wooden covers, and just serves to help protect the exposed sewing thread.

So, there you have it: a perfect example of late 15th century binding. Just like all the history books (and book conservation training) says it should be, but exposed by me today for the first time in probably 200 years or so.

Fun stuff. Have I mentioned recently how cool my job is?


Jim Downey