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A New Chapter for a 16th Century Codex

Follow Ms. Codex 1950 through the conservation process and learn what goes into bringing a fragile manuscript out from ‘restricted access’ for teaching and study.

A person wearing a mask is applying a small tool to the edge of a manuscript page that appears to have been removed from a codex lying open to the side.

“So many books, so little time” is a common refrain in libraries, but for Conservation Librarian Tessa Gadomski, the phrase has a different meaning. Working in the Steven Miller Conservation Laboratory, Gadomski has spent time with some of the Penn Libraries’ oldest books, manuscripts, and archival materials. From deep cleaning an item that’s been nibbled by insects to removing prior treatments or creating and attaching a new cover, the work that Gadomski and her colleagues perform in the Conservation Lab can be painstaking and time-consuming. Given that there are also many items that require treatment, the Conservation Lab must prioritize the highest areas of need and figure out a realistic balance of time and resources to commit to each project.

That's why when Ms. Codex 1950, a book of Persian poetry, came across her desk, Gadomski knew this project would be different. Because this book was identified as a priority by Mitch Fraas, Director of Special Collections & Research Services, she was able to dive into the work of treating this manuscript, with the goal of stabilizing the fragile book so that students and researchers could handle and use it in the future. An important aspect of this work was ensuring the materials and techniques she used to treat the book and extend its life were sympathetic to the time period and culture of its production. That made this a research-heavy project, with Gadomski reviewing the materials and techniques that would have been used originally.

To learn more about the cultural considerations that informed Gadomski's work, visit Diversity in the Stacks: Culturally Sensitive Conservation of Ms. Codex 1950.

Taking a closer look

Ms. Codex 1950 is a 430-page illuminated manuscript: this means it is hand-written and contains painted decorations. Its catalog entry lists its publication date as between 1474 and 1650; the codex itself is dated 1474, but additions were clearly made later on. According to Marianna Shreve Simpson, a Research Associate at Penn’s Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies and specialist in medieval and early modern Islamic art, particularly Persian illustrated manuscripts, the codex “is likely to have originated in Shiraz, which was a major center of manuscript production” in the 16th century.

The codex was one of the Penn Libraries’ early acquisitions – at the time, Penn only had one library, which had recently moved to the Furness Building, known today as the Fisher Fine Arts Library. It was given to Penn in 1900 by Philadelphia industrialist and prolific collector Clarence S. Bement (1843-1923), best known for his collection of rare minerals, whose diverse interests also led him to collect the Lewis Psalter and other choirbooks; papyrus fragments from The book of the Dead; and American and European coins, among other items.

“It is in some ways our most impressive illustrated Persian manuscript,” Fraas says. As Gadomski notes in her blog post, the codex is highly decorated, containing 19 miniatures throughout its pages.

An ornate manuscript page includes a miniature on the left side and the text on the right. The miniature showcases a colorful historical battle scene. Multiple figures are depicted, some mounted on horses, engaged in combat. Swords, flags, and weapons are visible. Banners flutter in the background.  The manuscript has aged edges and is set against a plain dark background.
A page from the digital copy of the manuscript in Colenda shows an example of a brightly colored miniature.

Islamic manuscripts, including this one, read right-to-left. This means a reader opens the book with the spine to the right and the fore-edge (opposite side) to the left. Then the text runs from right to left, the opposite of a Western manuscript. The codex contains two poetic works by two different authors. One of them, the poem Yūsuf va Zulaykhā by Nūr ad-Dīn ʻAbd al-Raḥmān Jāmī, is written on the horizontal lines of text in the primary written surface, with its accompanying illustrations in the center. The other, Mihr va Mushtarī by Muḥammad ʻAṣṣār Tabrīzī, is written on the diagonal in the secondary written surface, with its accompanying illustrations on the side.

Prior to treatment, the catalog entry for the codex noted that “this copy is extremely fragile with many of the inset pages loose.” Additionally, its binding had begun to fall apart, and the sewing structure restricted the opening of the book to about 30 percent. These are some of the challenges Gadomski set out to address in her work.

A walk through the process, page by page

Gadomski’s approach to conserving Ms. Codex 1950 began with a series of questions to determine the level of treatment that made the most sense. Over course of the project, she decided to conduct a surface cleaning; remove old, disintegrating mends; apply new mends; digitize the codex; resew it; and apply a cover.

“While I’ve worked with Persian manuscripts before, this project allowed me to revisit and to engage with recent research findings in a more practical, less theoretical, way, and make treatment decisions accordingly,” Gadomski explains. Indeed, she made each decision after speaking with multiple stakeholders who weighed the impact it could have on stabilizing the manuscript and on the goal of returning the work as closely as possible to the way it would have looked and felt originally.

In many conservation projects, Gadomski has to prioritize the pages most in need of treatment; in this case, however, Conservation and Kislak staff determined that a full treatment was warranted to make the entire book available for research and use. This meant that as she worked to stabilize the structure of the codex, she also worked on every one of its 430 pages. That makes Ms. Codex 1950 Gadomski’s longest-running conservation project to date.

She began by removing previous mends, which were in varying states of disintegration. A mend, as defined by the American Institute for Conservation, is “a technique used to provide physical stability to a tear or otherwise vulnerable site, generally consisting of a thin reinforcing repair paper and an adhesive to attach it securely to the paper artifact.”

“It was challenging, but also rewarding, to make the time investment in removing previous mends and mending every page in the book,” she explains. “This isn’t something we do often, because it is so time-consuming, and it’s common for conservators and other stakeholders to decide to choose less time-intensive, more minimal stabilization options. In this instance, Mitch and other scholars he consulted felt that the investment in more interventive treatment would be worth it long term, and I agreed. However, removing the old mends and applying new mends took over 250 hours, which required a lot of patience, even for a conservator!”

A manuscript is open, displaying two pages of dense text. The pages are aged and yellowed with some discoloration and spots. The binding of the book is visible and looks worn, suggesting frequent use over time.  There are intricate borders around the text on each page, adding to the ornate appearance of the manuscript.
A close view of Ms. Codex 1950 prior to Gadomski's treatment.

Perhaps the most discussed and researched portion of the manuscript was the binding, or the material used to make a book’s front and back covers as well as its sewing structure. Ms. Codex 1950 entered the Penn Libraries wearing a binding that had clearly been added later and was not historically representative of a 16th Century Persian manuscript — it had probably been resewn “at least two, possibly three times,” Gadomski notes — and it was falling apart. This meant a new binding was in order, but the codex contained few clues as to what the original was like.

When making alterations to a manuscript, conservators balance historical recreation with making the most minimally invasive treatment options – in most cases choosing the latter. For example, there was evidence that endbands had been present on an earlier binding structure, although they had been removed since, and endbands are “an important structural component of Islamicate bindings,” according to Gadomski. She chose to incorporate endbands, but selected muted colors rather than attempting to approximate brighter, historically accurate colors; because the endbands are a contemporary addition, so she did not want them to be too distracting.

“I spent the most time researching and thinking about the new binding,” Gadomski says. “In Conservation, we don’t put full, new covers on books often, because it requires introducing a lot of new materials, which is something we try to avoid unless it is necessary. It was important to me to be thoughtful and intentional about the new materials we chose, because we intend for the new cover to be on Ms. Codex 1950 for a long time."

A closed hardcover book with reinforced spine and corners, is visible worn and cracked. There is no visible text or title. The pages appear to be aged and slightly discolored.
Ms. Codex 1950 with its old cover, prior to treatment, was too fragile to be handled.

She also resewed the book (the details of which are described here). As a result, it can now be opened to 80 or 90 degrees – a far cry from a full 180 degrees (laying fully open on a flat surface), but a significant improvement over the original 30 degrees.

In addition to structural changes, Gadomski performed plenty of meticulous work at the level of each page, panel, and mend. Keeping pages in order was tricky, as many had become detached. At some point, they were all numbered quite faintly in pencil, so Gadomski followed that ordering. Bright white mends were applied on numerous pages throughout the manuscript, in many cases partially obscuring the text. Gadomski removed these mends and applied new, less obtrusive mends made from thin mulberry fibered paper and a solvent reactivated adhesive.

Individual pages of the codex are laid out on a flat surface. Several portions of the pages have square boxes atop them. The rest of the pages in a stack, as well as various conservation tools, can also be viewed in the background.
Weights are used to set new mends in place on each page.

A New Chapter Begins

Now that the conservation project is complete, Ms. Codex 1950 is available for use in the classroom and for individual study. It can also be viewed by the entire world in digital form via Colenda.

Simpson has already brought a class to view the codex and looks forward to following future research projects that could come from its availability. She had many ideas for aspects of the manuscript that are ripe for study: “Future research on the manuscript could involve: a full codicological study to confirm/correct the existing catalogue information, confirming the order of the two poetic texts, identifying the subject matter of the illustrations, comparing the pictorial programs and iconography with other illustrated copies of these two poems, and comparing the manuscript with other works from 16th century Shiraz,” she said, later adding, “Future research might [also] consider why these two poems have been copied and illustrated in the same codex.  Research on the calligrapher Qasim 'Ali al-Shirazi, who transcribed Ms. Codex 1950, would also be useful.”

Although Gadomski’s work will likely be reflected by a simple one or two-sentence addition to the catalog entry, she feels honored to play a part in facilitating access to Ms. Codex 1950: “Working with materials that are intended to be accessed and handled is one of the major challenges that drew me to library and archives materials, and is a major consideration in all of our work in Conservation. As our special collections are teaching collections, preserving this manuscript in a way that will facilitate access and learning, and allow others to share knowledge and evidence based on a primary source, is one of the most rewarding parts of our work,” she says. “I am truly looking forward to hearing more about what future scholars will learn from this manuscript!”


Featured photo: Conservation Librarian Tessa Gadomski removes the sewing from the binding of Codex 1950.