Bibliopaths: The case of the lacquer binding


Are we supposed to fear bibliopaths? Or maybe we should give them an award? Who are they? Atention! Because they can be among us, or we might even be one of them?!

They are victims of bibliophile passion, people touched by an irrepressible instinct to complete, improve, or repair a book. Their intention is good -from their point of view- but the subsequent results of their actions can unfortunately not be so.

The book remains half open due to the tension of the leather on the spine.This new section (which will have a brother called graphopaths) starts headed by a fantastic book from 1555, owned by the Cusí Pharmacy Museum from the Royal Academy of Pharmacy in Catalonia. It is Dioscórides Anazarbeo from Dr. Laguna. At first glance I thought it had a lacquered binding, because of the unusal shine of the leather. This technique was very typical (although not exclusive) in floral persian bindings. The lacquered touch and luster were obtained by a lacquer, for an instance shellac, which was wrist varnished on the leather, The varnish covers the painting spots and the inner cardboard.similar as it was done with furniture.

But, looking at it better… No, no! The lacquer was no doubt much later than the binding. We can see it surfacing over the worn cardboard edges, and also over the painting spots (probably wall painting), as well as over the registre of the Library, a paper band on the spine (image above, on the left) which was also soaked in varnish. The major damage caused by the varnish, in this case, was the  ongoing drying of the leather, which resulted in the odd remaining opened of the covers, rather than closed; and a gradual cracking of the raised cords on the spine. That’s why I made a simple test, I cut a small piece of varnish (it was thick enough to!) and burnt it. The unmistakable smell corroborated the suspicion: it was a plastic varnish.

Spine with varnish (above) and without it (under).

Before the treatment at the studio (above) the book was covered by plastic varnish which cracked the leather and impoverished the original colors.  After removing the varnish (under) the gilding shines again and the leather recovers its naturals elasticity.  The average thickness of the varnish was 612 microns… almost one millimetre!

Here then, a typical bibliopath intervention: When admiring the beautiful spanish leather of the original binding, the previous restorer might have probably thought that a varnish would increase the contrast of colors and prevent the leather against scratches. Yes, indeed… but at what price? The price of a leather becoming progressively cracked, modifying its natural luster, impoverishing the original colors and hampering its normal closing.

Varnish detailI thought that, maybe, it was an authenthic lacquer binding, which was afterwards varnished again . But that wasn’t so either, because when detaching the little paper band on the spine, the nude leather showed no evidence of other lacquers. And yet it is so: creativity and unpredictable mood are characteristic features of bibliopaths.
He repaired with enthusiasm the tiny tears on the sheets, with heady tapes and other stuff. But our ambitious protagonist did not stop there (in fact anyone can put some sellotapes) and tried to clean the slightly yellowed edges of the leaves with a bleaching agent.

Left: Soctch tapes and bleached edged. Right: After removing scothc tapes and treating water stains.

Left: Previous interventions with harmful consequences, such as the bleaching of the edges, which caused water stains and weakened the paper, but also discoloration of the red painted edges. Moreover the “repairs” (scotch tapes and others) oxidize and weaken the paper. Right: at the studio the stains have been treated and the greasy tapes have been removed, as well as the other repairs.

The application of the oxidizing agent (I guess it was hydrogen peroxide) was accompanied by the consequent formation of water stains at the perimeters, and the new stains were more visible than the natural darkening of the paper that was intended to hide. And the areas where the hydrogen peroxide was more intensively applied (the lower corners) were exceedingly weakened by the oxidation effect. But that’s not all, because as the book had red painted edges, some of this decoration was discolored.

Restoration report of the former treatment.However there is a differential fact: there is a report of these treatments written by his author, something that rearly happens, and that shows a scientific, and most of all, lasting will. He doesn’t mention exact products nor proceedings, but the information (and how it is shown) is very useful to put in context everything we find while examining the book. He reserves a discrete position, puting the report at the end of the book (although covering almost the whole marbled paper of the original binding). But, who’s to question the great interest of this restoration?!

At the end we are all bibliopaths, potencial or voracious, and to judge other’s work doesn’t make us less guilty. Even retrieving ancient’s repairs can condemn us.
Knowing the product catalog commonly used in restoration (or even DIY stuff) does not qualify us as restorers. How to apply them, but especially when, and why, is something that requires an accurate diagnosis and a thorough knowledge of heritage conservation. The goal should always be to ensure a proper conservation of media and a good overall performance. When this is done by a professional the result is often a favorable change of its appearance, but this is rarely the primary objective. However, the search for a notorious visual “improvement”, can never be at the expense of the conservation of the object, especially when treatments cause irreversible damage. The greater interest and admiration we have for an artefact, the greater should be the respect and humility with which we face any treatment therein.
After 1980's treatmentAfter restoration (2011)Share ALIKE mentioning AUTHOR and LINK


Cusí Pharmacy Museu, located at the company Alcon Cusí, S.A. (Masnou, Spain) and property of the Royal Academy of Pharmacy of Catalonia.

Mr. Amadeu Mosard and Mr. Grafòpata, followers of this blog and inspirers of this new bibliopaths and graphopaths section. Thanks a lot!

Related content:

Secret libraryMisterious iron rods on vellum binding"Smart books" and bibliographic terrorism Características de los libros con lomo fijoThe value of thingsGels, microemulsions and nano-systems applied to tape removalGone with the windConservation of gothic bookbindingEndbands, headbands and tiesEstudio de la consistencia de las estructuras de libros y propuestas de intervención.Flattening under tension on Goya's etchingsRecuperados los documentos más antiguos del archivo de Sants (Barcelona)Conservation studio University of Barcelona

And here’s a bibliopath whom I feel very keen on:

8 thoughts on “Bibliopaths: The case of the lacquer binding

  1. Hi Rita,
    Nice post. A couple of questions and a comment. First of all, how did you remove the synthetic “varnish”? Did you ever identify what it was? In the USA, in the 1950’s, it was unfortunately somewhat common to apply PVAc to the exterior of bindings to restore them. One product was called Liquick Leather. Sometimes this was applied while the books were still on the shelves, and you can quess what happened….

    • Uff! I had never heard of this product! Interesting to know.
      I removed the varnish with non polar solvents. There’s a tiny test on the right edge of the 4th image. It required quite a huge amount of solvent, and this may not have done any good to the leather, I know, but the spine was very, very cracked, and the feeling of increasing tension made me think it was better to remove it.
      After that, the book could be normaly closed without doing anything else, so it seems that the leather recovered somehow its moisture…
      And no, I did not identify which kind of varnish it was, but I gave a sample of the extracted remnants to the owner (there was a huge amount of it!!!) in case someone else can do or wants to do the proper tests.
      Thanks a lot for your comment! 🙂

  2. Hi! It is very interesting post! I found you because I was looking for spanish leather. Could you tell me more, what do you understand in this term? Is it generall term for marbled leather or one of visual effect ?

    • Hi Aleksandra!
      Many thanks for your comment.
      In spanish we call “pasta española”, meaning the marbling on leather. As far as I know the translation for that in english is “spanish leather binding”, so it involves marbling the leather, not the fact that the leather might come from Spain.
      I guess it is because this technique was first applied in Spain (Valencia), and thus the name.
      Hope it helps.

      • That’s very interesting! I’ve never heard of pasta espagnola, I know that normal way in english this type of leather is called marbled leather. But i found this guide of Abebooks : Understanding bindings by AbeBooks

        there is written about Spanish Leather as one of type marbled leather. What do you think about it ?
        Do you any article about pasta espagnola, I can find in Internet?

        • Aleksandra, I know replying almost year later is not very polite… sorry!
          I like the link very much and there is a “spanish” type, that seems to be marbling the leather. This is what we call here “Pasta valenciana”… hahaha… nomenclature varies in different countries.

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