Currently under construction… An interview with Vasarė Rastonis, conservator at “The Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies” in Reykjavík, on the famous “Book of Flatey”
In my 2016 interview with conservator Signe Hjerrild Smedemark, I wanted to find out about the work of a conservator in general and about paper conservation in Iceland. The Árni Magnusson Institute for Icelandic Studies in Reykjavík also had a major problem conserving one of Iceland’s national treasures, the so-called Flateyjarbók (“Book of Flatey”). This 14th-century parchment manuscript, also known as GKS 1005 fol. or Codex Flateyensis is the largest medieval Icelandic manuscript. It consists of 225 written and illustrated vellum leaves containing among others Old Norse-Icelandic histories of Norwegian kings, so-called konungasögur, Íslendingasögur (“Sagas of early Icelanders”), and Icelandic short stories. An association called Vinafélag Árnastofnunar (“Friends of Árnastofnun”), which also collects money for the preservation of manuscripts, decided to make the conservation of this unique treasure its first project.
In 2017, the Icelandic government decided to support the project with 5 MM. ISK (approximately 40,000 €). Conservator Vasarė Rastonis has already started her exciting work on Flateyjarbók. I am interested in the condition of this outstanding piece of medieval Icelandic book culture and how the conservation is proceeding:
1. The Icelandic newspaper Morgunblaðið recently wrote that Flateyjarbók was removed from its binding in 1930 in order to make a facsimile edition of it. What happened to the manuscript back then?
Both volumes of Flateyjarbók were disbound, specifically both bookblocks were removed from their 18th century calfskin bindings in a manner that did not structurally compromise the bindings. The sewing threads and supports were removed from the calf parchment bookblock and the manuscript was imaged. Once the facsimile was complete, the manuscript was resewn into two bookblocks, which were then cased back into the two calfskin bindings. Hide glue was used to case-in the manuscript along with burgundy coloured cloth hinges which were adhered to the front and back inner joints. The team of conservators who treated volume I observed that the hide glue applied to the bookblock spine during rebinding had made its way between the quires and onto the inner margins in some areas. Apart from obscuring remaining evidence of the manuscript´s existence, the excess adhesive in the gutters poses a risk to the physical object. Where it has come onto the inner margins of the bookblock, the hide glue has skinned the facing parchment leaf and in some areas threatens the stability of the media. The same issues can be observed in volume II.
2. If I remember correctly, the conservation of Flateyjarbók already started in 2013. How much of the conservation has been completed?
The Flateyjarbók manuscript leaves have received attention a few times during the past century. Prior to 1930, patch repairs were adhered over holes and tears in both volumes, many of these were removed but some still remain. There are toned Japanese paper mends that have been placed over holes and tears previously held together by the patch repairs and in areas that had not been previously mended. The Japanese paper repairs were most likely made by Birgitte Dall, who expertly cared for many of the Icelandic manuscripts when they were in Copenhagen. In 1994 and in 2007, Christopher Clarkson surveyed the manuscript´s two volumes and conservation work and continued condition reporting were carried out by Jiří Vnouček and Hersteinn Brynjúlfsson in 2013. Jiří and Hersteinn removed the bookblock of volume I from its binding and reduced the adhesive layer from the spines of the exterior bifolia of the fifteen quires. Volume I remains disbound and a similar treatment awaits volume II.
3. What exactly does your work on Flateyjarbók look like? Is there anything special about this manuscript in terms of conservation?
I have really only just begun working with Flateyjarbók. After taking some time to learn about the manuscript and the project until now, the next step was to stabilize the environment in the Conservation room so that it would be made suitable for working with parchment. Once the relative humidity could be controlled, I began a detailed condition survey of the manuscript´s second volume. I am almost finished with this condition survey and hope to remove the bookblock of the second volume from its binding by early July. After imaging and documenting what is revealed from the disbinding, I will begin separating the quires from one another. I anticipate this step taking some time as it involves adhesive removal from what I can only describe as a sensitive surface without having seen the spine folds of the quires. In late July, Jiří Vnouček will join me to continue adhesive removal from the quire spine folds. Once the quires have been stabilized then we will be able to better plan for next steps. As for anything special with regard to the conservation of Flateyjarbók, I immediatley think of the quality of the calf parchment. Although the skin itself is quite thick overall and thus seemingly tough, the surface is often soft on both flesh and hair sides. This fine pile surface would appear to add to the hygroscopic sensitivity of the skin and so will be something to keep close watch over while reducing adhesive from the spine folds and when mending tears.
4. When will your work on Flateyjarbók be completed?
The work will be completed once Flateyjarbók is bound in a manner that supports the parchment manuscript so that it may be viewed on occassion without causing much risk to the physical object. As for a completion date, we plan to finish the project before the new building opens, so within a few years.
5. When will the public have access to the manuscript? Will there be an exhibition?
Once Flateyjarbók has been stabilised, it will be made availiable for temporary exhibit and viewing when merited. As for an exhibition, I am not aware of any firm plans as we have some years remaining, but believe that an event will take place to highlight the manuscript, its history and the conservation project.
6. I know that a digital copy of Flateyjarbók is available on handrit.is. Does it contain the whole manuscript?
Yes, all of Flateyjarbók can be viewed on handrit.is, including the 18th century calfskin bindings. Discerning eyes will notice that some column numbers are missing (e.g. the recto of one leaf contains columns 541–542 and the verso contains columns 545–546, 543–544 do not exist) however this is how the manuscript exists.
7. Speaking about digitisation: I recently heard European conservators complaining about being recognised as service providers only within this field. How do you feel about that?
I think that in many instances this is indeed the situation. The work of a conservator is determined by the type of institution for which the conservator works and by the priorities of that institution. In recent years, conservation departments have experienced an increased demand for time originating from digitisation projects as well as from exhibits and loans requests. It is difficult to maintain a balance, but if possible, conservators should be supported in carrying out conservation work to meet digitisation and exhibit deadlines but to also sustain ongoing conservation projects that address the specific needs of a collection.
Although Flateyjarbók won’t be exhibited in the near future, several outstanding (medieval) Icelandic manuscripts can be visited in Reykjavík this year: on the occasion of the centenary of Iceland’s independence, an exhibition at the National Gallery (Listasafn Íslands) called Lífsblómið – Fullveldi í 100 ár (“Blossoming – Iceland’s 100 Years as a Sovereign State“) has among others Reykjabók and Ormsbók on display. Reykjabók (AM 468 4to, 1300–1315) contains one of the oldest preserved versions of famous Brennu-Njáls saga (“The Story of Burnt Njáll”); Ormsbók (also known as “Codex Wormianus”, AM 242 fol., 1340–1370) contains one version of the Prose Edda as well as “The First Grammatical Treatise” (Fyrsta málfræðiritgerðin) and the Eddic poem Rígsþúla (“Lay of Rígr”). These two important manuscripts are usually kept at the Arnamagnæan Manuscript Collection in Copenhagen. The exhibition was opened on 17 July and is accessible until 16 December 2018.