A human touch for ancient scripts at hospital for books

A human touch for ancient scripts at hospital for books

ROME - Agence France-Presse
A human touch for ancient scripts at hospital for books

Books damaged by termites are displayed on a shelf of the museum in Rome. AFP photo

Ancient manuscripts are treated like hospital patients at a famous book restoration institute in Rome that has worked on everything from the Dead Sea Scrolls to one of the oldest Korans in the world.

Founded in 1938 to preserve Italy’s priceless archives, the laboratory is tucked away inside a walled garden in the city center. “This interdisciplinary institute was the first of its kind in the world,” said, Marina Bicchieri, head of the chemistry department at the Institute of the Pathology of the Book.

The museum is filled with books suffering from the worst kinds of ailments , including one with a hole as big as a fist eaten by termites or another riddled with bullet holes from the Battle of Monte Cassino during World War II.

The institute is the main point of reference for book and archive restoration in Italy but also does work for the Vatican and internationally. One recent research project was carried out on fragments of Koranic manuscripts found in Sanaa in Yemen dating back to at least the eight-century. Researchers are so keen they even donated blood to carry out experiments after finding that an ink with human blood had been used to write the Dead Sea Scrolls, apparently because of its iron content to help stabilize colors.

“The main problems we see are linked to water, heat, dust and insects,” said Flavia Pinzari, head of the biology department.

Their projects can be long-running but also emergency interventions.

“Following the recent flooding in Tuscany we were called by the local authorities to help them with flooded archives,” Pinzari said.

“We told them to freeze the books since that stops the water from diluting the ink and micro-organisms from propagating. Then we can vaporize the frozen water avoiding damage linked to the water,” she said, adding the book restoration course lasts a full five years.