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Nicole Alvarado, book & paper conservator at UCLA Library, details the conservation treatment of “Istoria de' fenomeni del tremoto avvenuto nelle Calabrie e nel Valdemone nell'anno 1783 / posta in luce dalla Reale Accademia delle Scienze, e delle Belle Lettere di Napoli” (“History of the Phenomena of the Earthquake That Occurred In Calabria and Valdemone In the Year 1783 / Brought to Light By the Royal Academy of Sciences and Fine Letters of Naples”).

One volume is filled with text accounting this disastrous series of earthquakes, with the other including illustrated engravings depicting the survey that occurred after the earthquake.

The process

From the UCLA Catalog record, the two volumes are “description and illustrations of the major earthquake of Calabria of Feb. 5-Mar. 28, 1783, based on observations of a group of scientists, architects, and draftsmen commissioned by the Reale Accademia delle Scienze, e delle Belle Lettere di Napoli to investigate and report on the damage sustained.”

According to the description in the catalog of the Christie's sale in London, Nov. 14, 2007, "The expedition left Naples on 5th April 1783, and in 1784 the account of their findings was published by Giuseppe Campo, making it the first scientific expedition on the consequences of an earthquake ever to be organized in Italy. The earthquake shook Calabria and the eastern part of Sicily for more than three years with several tremors, including five that registered grade XI on Mercalli's scale. More than 30,000 people died, hundreds of villages were destroyed, mountains collapsed, rivers changed their course creating new lakes, and even the coastline was reshaped."

Much like Italy after the big earthquake, this two-volume set also exhibited damages in need of repair. The set came to the lab in 2015 when a proposal was made to address the engravings that had distracting waterborne tidelines and staining in the image area. The books were bound in tight back, tight joint ½ vegetable tanned sheepskin leather on the spine and corners style, rigid board binding with 19th century Spanish Wave pattern marbled paper sides. The bindings are likely not contemporary with the published engravings and seem to be 19th century British.

Both the first and second volumes’ bindings were in poor condition with detached boards, a damaged spine covering, and degraded leather that was powdering into dust, often referred to as “red rot.” The text in the first volume was still in good condition with an especially fine red and black printed title page and intaglio printed vignettes in the title and the first page of text.

Volume 1 and 2 with detached boards and degraded leather spines

The second volume housed engravings that were in fair condition aside from waterborne stains leaving light brown tide lines in the image area out of 10 of the 51 pages.

Engraving with significant staining, before bathing

Engraving with reduced staining, after bathing

Addtional examples of waterborn staining on prints

Chela Metzger, head of Preservation & Conservation at UCLA Library, along with Jane Carpenter, former rare book cataloger; and Octavio Olivera, former visual art specialist, made the decision to mediate this issue.

The book was then disbound, the book pages dry cleaned to remove excess grime, and after tests, aqueous treatment began. In 2019, former interns Katarina Stiller and Kevin Torres dry cleaned and bathed each engraving under Metzger’s supervision. This was done to reduce the staining and discoloration in the sheets. As you can see in the image comparison below, the stain is reduced overall, and the paper tonality was improved.

Portion of the illustration based on the 1783 Calabrian Earthquakes
Detail of stain reduction (after bathing on left)

While bathing one of the sheets, they discovered that iron inclusions were present in some of the remaining engravings, which caused an orange bloom to surface on the paper in the bath. Bathing was stopped at this point, and each sheet was re-examined to search for more inclusions. Transmitted light helped to identify sheets that might have these inclusions and were set aside to be addressed later.

Example of inclusions in paper, transmitted illumination, during treatment

In 2019, I took over this treatment project as a third-year graduate student intern. The microscopic bits of metal inclusions were mechanically removed under magnification. This was a tedious but necessary task to avoid disfiguring rust colored blooming to occur in the bath. Once removed, the sheets could be bathed as the other 41 sheets were.

Microscope image of partially removed inclusion verso (left) and recto (right)

At this point, the individual sheets of engravings needed to be put back into a book format. To accomplish this, each sheet was placed into groupings of four, and two sheets were guarded together to create conjugates with a spine fold for sewing through.

Textblock after guarding being sewn on sewing frame
Rounding and backing the spine in a job backer
Rounding and backing the spine in a job backer

De-plied hemp cord was used as sewing supports, aligned adjacently to where the original lacing holes are located on the boards. This was done to allow the original laced in cords to remain intact for future research if needed.

Once the spine had all consolidating layers of linings, it was rounded and backed in the job backer, and the sewing supports were frayed and used as the primary attachment for the boards. I used toned Japanese paper as the covering material over a hollow tube for the spine, which helped make the book look naturally covered and worn.

It’s not every day that you finish a book that’s been in the lab for so long, but when you do, it’s a happy day to see it become accessible to patrons again!

Volumes after treatment

Page opening after treatment

Front and back after treatment

Associated Staff Member