The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 22, Number 5

Conference of St. Gall: "The Mother of All Conservation Conferences"

A hundred years ago last September 30, the first international conference on the preservation of manuscripts was held in Saint Gall (Sankt Gallen) in northeast Switzerland, not far from Lake Konstanz. It was organized by the head of the Vatican Library, Dr. P. Franz Ehrle, who invited heads of major archives all over Europe. There were 18 participants, from eight countries. It only lasted two days, but it came to be referred to as the "mother of all restoration (or conservation) conferences," and had a continuing influence on restoration practice.

Its closing resolution made sound recommendations (that a list of the oldest and most important manuscripts be drawn up, that the condition of important documents be documented with photographs, that a standing committee be set up to accomplish certain tasks, and that another meeting be held the following year).

Poul Christiansen, Danish editor of Restaurator, assembled and published all the documents he could find on this meeting in his journal's first supplement in 1969, which was almost entirely in German. These were 1) a long summary of discussions at the meeting on the best new practices of the time, especially for dealing with iron gall ink. Methods of strengthening pages weakened by the ink at that time included impregnating with Zapon (cellulose nitrate) or gelatin and formaldehyde, and silking. (The Zapon turned out later to be a Big Mistake, but every generation makes mistakes.)

After that 40-page summary of the 1898 meeting comes the nine-page German-language record of the 1899 follow-up meeting of German archivists in Dresden, attended by 57 delegates, including a few chemists, from various states and towns. Four slides were shown: a microphotograph of Aspergillus mycelia, and three slides showing successive stages of treatment of a palimpsest to make visible the original text. All are reproduced in the text.

Before leaving, they resolved to spread the word about Zapon and to encourage the use of ink that would not destroy the substrate. The meeting closed with three cheers for the king of Saxony.

Transactions (official record) of the 1898 St. Gall conference, "Internationale Conferenz zur Erhaltung und Ausbesserung alter Handschriften," come at the end of the Restaurator supplement. This record has apparently never been translated into English. (Note: If a reader can provide an English translation for publication in this Newsletter, they will be suitably rewarded.)

The centenary of the St. Gall meeting was not remembered in the U.S., but the occasion was marked in Switzerland, Germany and Italy. The Italian CABNewsletter reported in late 1998 that the library of the monastery of Saint Gall had organized a conference December 4, entitled "International Conference of San Gallo 1898-1998: Conservation of Early Manuscripts and [oggi=?]."

Restauro, the German conservation journal, announced the centenary as a news item in the first issue of 1999, and reported that the St. Gall conference had led to the organization of a symposium on ink in 1979, which was reported in Restaurator 5 (1981/21). That symposium led to advances in various projects.

CABNewsletter dedicated Issue no. 6 of 1998 to the St. Gall conference, printing translations into Italian of the German transactions, and of a biography of Franz Ehrle by Cardinal Alfons M. Stickler, from the Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science.

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