Pigment consolidation of illuminated manuscripts at the Fitzwilliam Museum

Research and conservation of illuminated manuscripts

Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund case study

Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Funding round:

Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, round four


A three-year project for a conservation scientist to work in the Fitzwilliam Museum’s illuminated manuscripts. This is an outstanding collection and the project encompasses cutting edge research with international interest.

Project manager:

Stella Panayotova, Keeper, Manuscripts and Printed Books

About the project:

The Fitzwilliam Museum preserves one of the finest and largest museum collections of Western illuminated manuscripts in existence.

Illuminated manuscripts survive in far greater numbers and superior condition than any other painted artefacts from the middle ages and the Renaissance because they were expensive, protected objects.

The identification of illuminators’ materials and techniques can help us reconstruct the history of painting in the medieval and early Renaissance periods, and can inform conservation treatment of all types of contemporary painted objects – panels, frescoes, sculpture, and glass as well as manuscripts.

This project focuses on the non-invasive scientific analyses of artists’ materials and techniques in illuminated manuscripts.

It supports the post of a conservation scientist, Paola Ricciardi, working closely with the keeper of manuscripts to identify priority material for analyses and to interpret the scientific data in the art historical and broader cultural context of the original manuscripts.

She also collaborates with the manuscripts conservator to ensure that the identification of artists’ materials informs their treatment and long-term preservation.

While illuminated manuscripts preserve their pigments in far better condition than other painted artefacts, they are still affected by time, use and environmental changes.

Pigments are abraded and flake through use, powder when binders fail, interact with one another, discolour and suffer degradation due to their inherent chemical components.

These problems are frequently overlooked, as conservators focus on more obvious ones, such as tears of the paper or parchment and structural damage to the bindings. Conservation courses rarely offer training in pigment consolidation and very few conservators practise it.

The problem is compounded by our limited knowledge about the materials and techniques of illuminated manuscripts.

Based on textual sources or visual observation, it is lagging behind our knowledge about other painted artefacts whose materials are well known due to the much more invasive approaches to their conservation, involving the removal of samples and the restoration or reconstruction of damaged areas.

None of these are practised by manuscript conservators because the small quantities, thin layers and extremely delicate application of pigments would be compromised by sampling.

Fortunately, recent technological advances allow for non-invasive, sample-free analyses of illuminated manuscripts.

16022015-conservation-scientist-conducting-xrf-analysis-fitzwilliam (ID 1139173)

Conservation scientist conducting XRF analysis

The project uses a wide range of non-invasive analytical techniques in situ and offers a wealth of new information to conservators and scholars.

Ricciardi’s identification of pigments, binders and painting techniques assists the conservator in understanding the complex reasons and sources of pigment corrosion, and in choosing the most appropriate materials for their consolidation.

The scientific analyses also add new dimensions to traditional academic disciplines, allowing scholars to examine manuscripts in view of their materials, practical execution, technical know-how, and economic as well as symbolic and intellectual values.

The project is about unique and beautiful works of art, but it is also about people: the artists who employed their extraordinary vision and skills to create the manuscripts; the patrons who commissioned and adapted them to their evolving needs and tastes; the curators, conservators and scientist who are bringing together their rich and diverse expertise to further our knowledge about the treasures of the past and secure their preservation into the future; and the public who are continuously re-discovering and re-interpreting these treasures.

The project has been a real springboard for involving other individuals and institutions.

It is training young scientists and conservation interns in the identification and consolidation of pigments.

It is building partnerships with art and educational institutions that house comparable collections, but do not have access to scientific equipment and expertise.

Two closely-related projects, the Cambridge Illuminations and MINIARE, are creating free resources to share with professionals and the public: a database of the analytical scientific identifications and an online research and teaching resource.

The latter will integrate the scientific and historical information about the manuscripts, and will offer interpretation at numerous levels to diverse audiences, from university students to schoolchildren, and from conservation professionals to the art-loving public.

These projects underpin a major exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum which will display the manuscripts that have been analysed, conserved and researched – Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts (30 July – 30 December 2016).