Time Travel with the Montefiascone Conservation Project


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Sewing the text block of the Romanesque limp binding. Photo by Élodie Lévêque

Scientists agree that traveling to the past would be a more challenging concept than traveling to the future. A way to get an incredible glimpse of the past for conservators, bookmakers, and preservation librarians is by taking a class at the Montefiascone Conservation Project. This summer, thanks to the support of Watson Library, I took the workshop “A Luxury French Romanesque Binding” in Montefiascone, Italy. This workshop was developed and taught by conservators Élodie Lévêque and Cédric Lelièvre.

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Left: Cédric Lelièvre demonstrating the treatment of alum tawed vellum. Right: Élodie Lévêque demonstrating the process of binding decoration. Photos by author unless otherwise indicated

Montefiascone Conservation Project brings together conservators and bookbinders from all around the world, and this year I was fortunate to attend with colleagues from Europe, Canada, and the United States. We learned about the complexity and diversity of historic French limp structures, and made a model based on a thirteenth-century Romanesque limp binding. Some of the features of this historic binding are colored chevron endbands, Brazilwood-pigment dyed leather edging, and decorative fastening and tooling. We were introduced to the process of fifteenth-century alum leather tawing, and learned how to make the leather from parchment. We worked in a seventeenth-century room that had period portraits and a coffered rosette ceiling, and enjoyed the incredible views (and sounds) of sheep and cicadas.


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Left: Romanesque limp model during the process of making (lining attachment). Right: Finished model

The Montefiascone Conservation Summer School started in 1992 following the preservation program of the library of the Seminario Barbarigo, which started five years earlier. Both programs were developed thanks to the remarkable work and devotion of British conservator and program director, Cheryl Porter. The library was an important feature of the seminary that was built in the seventeenth century by the Cardinal of Montefiascone, Marco Antonio Barbarigo. The seminary served as an educational center for students of theology, and its focus was expanded from theology to secular studies with Barbarigo’s successor, Cardinal Garampi. Barbarigo and Garampi’s collections of six thousand books (the former recognized for the vellum bindings and the latter ones for leather and other material coverings) have a significant importance for the history of Montefiascone and the history of the book.


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The Marco Antonio Barbarigo Seminary

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Glimpse of the extraordinary collection in the Marco Antonio Barbarigo Library

Montefiascone’s rich history is linked to the important Roman road “Via Cassia,” which connected Rome (eighty miles away) to Central Italy. Throughout the centuries, this road was strategically important to Roman popes and bishops. While different popes had different interests in the town, Pope Leo X, who was from the Medici family, spent his summers in Montefiascone where he would invite eminent guests, such as Michelangelo. Montefiascone lies on the highest hill in the area and overlooks the beautiful Lake Bolsena, the largest volcanic lake in Italy. Some of the most important sights in Montefiascone are the papal fortress, the Basilica of Santa Margherita, and San Flaviano Church.

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Streets of Montefiascone


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Montefiascone Cathedral


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Left: Upper structure of San Flaviano Church Right: Vaulted ceelings and frescoes

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Left: Corso Cavour street starts at the main gate to the town and leads to the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele. Right: Parade on the Corso Cavour that commemorates the “Est! Est!! Est!!!” legend.


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Papal fortress on the top of the hill overlooking the Lake Bolsena


The Basilica of Santa Margherita is known for its grandiose dome that is considered one of the largest in Italy. It is a place where the founder of the seminary, Marco Antonio Barbarigo, was buried. Found outside of the walls of the medieval town is the San Flaviano Church. It was built in Romanesque and Gothic styles in the ninth century, and it is known for its different period frescoes, the earliest ones dating back to the fourteenth century. This intriguing structure is also known for the tomb of a German bishop, famous for a legend that became known as “Est! Est!! Est!!!” The bishop, according to the legend, moved to Montefiascone in the twelfth century to enjoy its good wine and ended up dying from its overconsumption. Citizens of Montefiascone commemorate the legend every year in August with period costumes and a parade during the wine festival season that coincides with the classes at the Montefiascone Conservation Program.

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View of the Lake Bolsena


Travelling to the past might be challenging from a scientific perspective, yet my medieval trip with the Montefiascone Conservation Project went quite smoothly. It was educational, intriguing, enjoyable, and above all inspiring!