It’s been a long trip in the company of the famous orator from ancient Rome and I’m happy to finally present you the bindings of Cicero. Are you ready for an extensive reading (you can skip the later half of the post which is more technical)?
I have an affinity for the history and culture of Rome. There’s something special about this city which became the crucible that -perhaps more than any other- paved the way (see what I did?) for our modern civilization. It is the amalgam of mankind’s greatest aspirations and worst inclinations, and the continuous clash of the two elements drove each other to extremes until Rome was torn apart many times. It is amidst the chaos of this clash that Cicero can be found.
At this point allow me to make a recommendation, not related to bookbinding. If you want to get to know about Rome in a way that is both entertaining and accurate watch HBO’s Rome, a two season 2005-2007 series. The series gives the most historically accurate represantation that I know of the era and all that defined it and it is evident that the producers went to great lengths in order to create a full and vivid image of Rome, from its streets to its people, their beliefs and mentality, from the power struggles and glory to everyday life’s small details. Apart from those it is a well-knit and interesting story blending excellently fictional characters which have depth with historical figures and events, with good directing and casting and overall great production value. Try it and you won’t be dissapointed.
Back to bookbinding though. When my client got in touch I was very interested to hear that I wasn’t just going to be binding Cicero but a Folio edition as well. I have talked in a previous post about Folio Society and their wonderful editions. These books would be a joy to bind and I loved the topic as well.
Marcus Tulius Cicero is one of the most important figures of ancient Rome and his intellectual magnitude defined literature not only during his time but in a vast way until today as well. He was a philosopher, politician, lawyer, political theorist, consul and constitutionalist (check the Wikipedia article). His most influential attribute though was his excellence in the use of words. Cicero was one of Rome’s greatest orators, and widely considered among the best throughout human history in general, and his prose and speeches transformed Latin. According to Wikipedia; “he is credited with transforming Latin from a modest utilitarian language into a versatile literary medium capable of expressing abstract and complicated thoughts with clarity”. Quntilian declared that Cicero was “not the name of a man, but of eloquence itself” and Michael Grant said ” the influence of Cicero upon the history of European literature and ideas greatly exceeds that of any other prose writer in any other language“.
He also lived during a most turbulent time; the republic had succesfully expanded a great deal and was about to enter a troubled period that would transform it into an empire. Civil strife, conspiracies and power struggles along with the growth of Rome’s influence defined Cicero and in return he played a key role in the turning points of the city’s history and Rome itself.
We discussed a lot with the client on the details of the binding and what its visual result should convey. However almost from the get go there was a certain idea in my mind; that of a golden river traversing the binding. This came to be the cornerstone of the whole design.
My thoughts behind this element were the following.
Cicero and the events and identity of Rome are intertwined. The design should emit a sense of splendor, novelty, but also of distortion and transformation. The river symbolizes the gradual transformation of the Roman republic (wide beginning at the back cover) to civil strife and power accumulation by ambitious individuals which led to the decline of the Senate (narrower part of the spine), eventually leading to an empire with a single dictator (narrow part at the front cover). At the same time it represents the “flow of words”, the growth and enrichment of the Latin language which is a core aspect of Rome and Cicero’s personality, leading to a finesse peak – a pinnacle of form and meaning. Combined with this visual element Cicero’s name on the spine adopts a narrative role – it shows us that he was pivotal in all that transpired.
The cover however would feel empty with just that. There was need to fill the rest of the binding in a way that displays its content but at the same time remains discreet. The golden river in the middle zone dominates the design, I couldn’t have something as intense – rather the opposite, so in order to celebrate Cicero I decide to blind tool parts of his orations in Latin. The text is in capitals and you can also notice the absence of punctuation – that is how Latin texts were written or inscribed on surfaces. I took exerpts from his speech “Against Catilina”, one of his most famous orations. You can locate the renown phrase “O tempora, o mores” (“what times do we live in?”) in the text.
The final result was two full leather fine bindings gilt in 22 Carat gold leaf, bound in Maroon Valencia goatskin. They feature leather joints, handmarbled paper, handstitched endbands (french, double core, 3 color) from silk thread, blind stamped decoration and gilt leather onlays. I also made two bookbinding cases with velvet interior and covered in cloth.
There were many things that had to be factored in realizing the design, which proved quite challenging and time consuming. After the book was covered the metal dies for the latin text had to be made. I didn’t trust a hot-stamping machine to make the impression since if something went wrong (for example misalignment) the binding would be ruined. I opted for wet-stamping which is a traditional method of leather forming and would allow more control over the process. The dies would be pressed with a gradual increase in pressure over the leather which would have been moistened right before.
Making the dies to align was one of the major problems I had to tackle, both when designing them and during the pressing as well, so I had to come up with various solutions. They were very large to leave a uniform and equally deep impression so they were pressed in multiple stages, for example first the upper half of the back die, then the lower half, then all over again.
The initial pressing was the most difficult, if the die didn’t leave a deep enough impression over most of its surface then I wouldn’t be able to place it in exactly the same way when the process would be repeated, resulting in a double impression that would totally ruin the binding.
Surface gilding allows covering a large surface with gold leaf. It is a demanding technique and although I had experimented a lot this is the first time I use it on a binding and in such a scale. I’m very pleased with the result – and I rarely feel so.
My guide for the technique was James Reid Cunningham’s article on surface gilding in Bonefolder Vol 6 No1 from the Book Arts Web. If you feel like having a go you can find the PDF at the bottom of this post. It is well written and comprehensive, thorough and accompanied with step-by-step pictures.
Firstly I masked the outline of the area I wish to gilt and applied the glaire, a chemical solution that will bond gold with leather when heated. Applying the glaire is tricky; one has to evenly spread a thin layer with as few brush strokes as possible. Less and the gold won’t adhere, successive or overlaping applications of glaire will show when then gold is applied and using anything but a brush as soft as a baby’s hair will result in poor results.
Applying the gold is stage 2. I used my Polishing Brass tool to do so. The gold is applied in pieces that are heated with the tool in multiple successions until the bonding element of the glaire is activated and the gold melts and blends in the leather. Too much heat and the gold will be ruined, too little and it won’t adhere uniformly leaving non-gilt patches here and there – a disaster!
Another thing that can go wrong is having sharp lines visible at the places where the gold leafs overlap. It has taken me a lot of effort and gold leaf -that thing is expensive mind you!- practicing but I believe the result is great; I challenge you to find the edges of the gold leafs on the finished binding, there are 6 meeting points on each.
The design was also double-gilt; it was gilt entirely and then all over again with a second layer of gold. I found that by doing so the gold has a much deeper color and shine and the meeting points of gold leafs become impossible to distinguish. Double the cost though…
Up close there are small parts and areas, especially on the second binding, with clusters of tiny holes/streaks showing the leather underneath. As can be seen in the pictures of Cunningham’s article that is a result of the leather’s grain and irregular surface. It can be avoided if someone “crushes” the grain using the polishing tool but then much of the leather’s allure is lost…
I was inspired to do the title on the spine in this particular way by Luigi Castiglioni, a very talented designer binder. Spend some time to see his marvelous bindings and “making of” pictures. The general idea is to surface gild a paper-thin strip of leather, cut out the letters and then paste them as onlays on the binding.
I also used my most treasured marble paper, one I’ve been saving for years. It is not visible in the photos but the marbler used a paint that imitates gold instead of some yellow hue, which shines and makes interesting plays with light upon handling.
Last but not least, I used a Valencia goatskin from Harmatan to bind the books. For all you people interested in trying bookbinding leather from them here’s a review of sorts.
I want to underline that my experience has been overall great. There are two things however that I’d like to mention.
First one has to do with leather thickness. I bought 5 leathers two of which where from the Valencia range they offer. Although they were listed as 0.9 thickness, upon arrival I was dissapointed to find out that one of the 2 was closer to 1.5. That is way thicker than 0.9. Not all binders know how (or want for that matter) to pare down an entire leather with a spokeshave and even if that’s not an issue I wouldn’t have bought the leather if it was listed as 1.5. If it was 1.0-1.2 I could make do but that is simply too much.
The second and most important has to do with packaging. The leathers were practically wrapped around with a cardboard, and not a thick one at that. They were shipped to a relative of mine in the UK who then brought them to Greece, so maybe it’s their way of packaging leathers for inland shipping. Nonetheless it is fairly insufficient and any mishandling along the way could easily bent the package and crease all of the skins… Cardboard tubes or triangular boxes are very resilient and must certainly be inexpensive if bought in bulk, can’t really see why they didn’t use one.
These aside the leather was excellent in every way. Great texture, works like a charm, tools and pares very well. My only complain is that while the color is really vivid under natural or strong light it loses most of its intensity and appears almost dark under normal room light. Other than that it is a wonderful leather and a pleasure to work with.
Till next time!