Within the Special Collections of the Baillieu Library at Melbourne University there was a copy of Monstrorum Historia by Ulyssis Aldrovandi bound in vellum in 1642. Aldrovandi was a professor at Bologna University and was an early naturalist, and this volume depicts ‘monstrous deformities’ in humans and animals. The book had been repaired in the past, but those repairs were failing and needed conservation treatment before it could be handled safely. Although I have experience working on leather-bound volumes, I had little experience with vellum and felt the need for further training and so applied for the ADFAS mid-career scholarship to use to travel to Adelaide for two weeks to work with Karen Vidler of Book Conservation Services, who is very experienced with vellum bindings.
It was an intensive two weeks of training and, besides repairing the damage, my tasks included constructing a scaled-down model of the book replicating the original binding structure—a way of further understanding the materials involved and how they function when bound together.
We commenced with a thorough examination of the vellum, the paper, and the sewing structure. Using a digital microscope, we identified the grain pattern as calf (vellum was originally made from calf, although skins from other animals were also used). The same watermark was visible throughout the book, but we have not yet been able to identify the source.
The principal damage to this volume (and the common form of damage found on most books) was the splitting of the joint where the front cover meets the spine. The cords that traverse this area and around which the pages are sewn had split and the vellum along this joint had also broken. Accordingly, the repair work was chiefly concerned with extending these broken cords to enable them to be reattached to the cover and then repairing the split to the vellum.
Unlike skins that have been tanned, which gives them more supple working properties, vellum is more rigid and much more responsive to environmental conditions, especially humidity. The expansion and contraction of the vellum also led to other splits to the endpapers. After consolidating the damaged areas and attaching additional threads, the boards were reattached and the joint repaired using a fine parchment lined with kozo paper.
The trip was successful. I gained knowledge and skills in working with vellum and the book has been safely returned to the University of Melbourne for use by researchers. I would like to thank ADFAS and AICCM for supporting this training, as well as the staff of Grimwade Conservation Services and the University of Melbourne, Baillieu Library Special Collections.