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Czech Republic: In Prague, Flood-Damaged Bible Being Restored

  • Askold Krushelnycky

A priceless 500-year-old Bible, one of the first ever printed in a Slavic language, is being restored in the Czech Republic after being badly damaged during last summer's floods. As RFE/RL reports, there is an innovative technique behind the restoration.

Prague, 29 May 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One of the few remaining copies of the first Bible printed in Czech -- and thus one of the first Bibles in any Slavic language -- was among the items engulfed by floodwaters in the Czech capital last summer.

Known as the Kampa Bible and printed in 1488, it is classified as "incunabula," a work from the earliest period of typography.

Each of the dozen Prague Bibles printed at the time was unique because artists made hand-painted additions reminiscent of the illumination techniques used when Bibles were copied by hand by monks using beautiful, and often colorful, calligraphy.

The Bible is one of the most precious items among a vast array of books, manuscripts, maps, and other documents waterlogged after the worst floods in around 200 years swamped Prague last August.

The volume was one of thousands in Prague's Municipal Library caught by the swiftly rising waters of the River Vltava that flows through the capital.

The head of the Czech National Library's conservation department, Jiri Vnoucek, said millions of items in state libraries and archives including the Military History Archive, the Academy of Science, and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, were badly damaged in the flood.

Vnoucek said he had been to the Municipal Library before the floods to advise about safety precautions, and the staff there had made alterations to prevent damage by humidity or burst water pipes. But he said nobody had thought the flood would rise to such a catastrophic level.

Vnoucek said that after the waterlogged materials were rescued the first task was to prevent any further damage from being done: "It's maybe like a doctor in the war. A civilian doctor has two, three patients a day, and if you are on the battlefield you have a hundred, maybe 100,000 wounded people. [A] normal doctor can say 'Come tomorrow,' but on the battlefield you may have to say, 'Well, just stop the bleeding.'"

Frozen-food warehouses and vehicles were pressed into service to freeze the soggy documents to prevent them from rotting. This, however, left conservationists facing a new problem: how to thaw and dry out the volumes without causing further harm.

Vnoucek, who studied conservation techniques in the United Kingdom, said British experts phoned him even before the floodwaters receded, offering help using a technique they had developed: "Britain was the first and only country that took fast action. Some other countries only spoke about it from the beginning and did nothing. They phoned me [during the flood] and said, 'We have thought about you, and what about your books?'"

The British technique uses specially developed vacuum machines to wrap waterlogged items in materials that slowly absorb the moisture. A small version, which looks like a washing machine fused with a television, copes with most books, while a bigger machine treats larger volumes.

The item, either an entire book or segments of a book, is repeatedly treated in the vacuum machine over a period of months to remove moisture before it is transferred to a gas bath of ethylene oxide to "kill" contaminants from the river water.

Vnoucek said that the machines are being used by the National Library and the country's Technical Museum, the two institutions that are doing most of the painstaking restoration work. He said that different types of restoration require different techniques.

"There is no technology -- and especially in conservation I would say this is the rule -- there is no method or technology which solves all the problems or which is like the absolute solution. This technique, which is called vacuum packing, is good for certain types of objects to which a certain level of time and attention would be paid," Vnoucek said.

He said the method is best suited for things such as old leather bindings and delicate parchment texts -- precisely what is needed for the rare Kampa Bible.

The British Council, London's international organization for educational opportunities and cultural relations throughout the world, paid for the first consignment of three vacuum machines and for British specialists to train Czech colleagues.

The British Council spokeswoman in Prague, Maja Ostadalova, said Charles, Prince of Wales, and another British well-wisher donated money for six more machines.

Jana Dvorakova has been working since last February on the restoration of the damaged Bible and hopes to have it ready this autumn. Her workplace at the National Library's depository reflects some of the improvisation and ingenuity that was needed to deal with the massive task.

Domestic food freezers that would normally be loaded with food open to reveal exquisite leather-bound ancient volumes. Racks of clear plastic bags seemingly containing old newspapers contain the damaged materials swaddled in cloth, layers of blotting paper and then old newspapers after the moisture and air has been drawn out by the vacuum machines, which heat seal the precious contents.

Dvorakova is at the beginning of her professional life and is working on the Bible as part of the final exams for her three-year conservation course. She says, "It is sometimes scary knowing that you are dealing with something unique and you cannot make a mistake. But restorers have to show that sort of care, whatever the project."

Dvorakova said that although Britain and other countries have given help, some of it was earmarked for specific functions and there is still a lack of cash to do all the work that needs to be done.

"Some money came from some institutions in the Czech Republic and from the U.S.A., but they were [designated] for preparing new conservation studios or for certain things, not just money [to spend as needed]. But I think it still isn't enough," Dvorakova says.

Millions of pieces, meanwhile, await rescue. A Czech expert calculated that it would take one restorer, working alone, 5,000 years to repair the 20,000 rare books damaged at the Municipal Library. Dvorak and Vnoucek admit that is sometimes a daunting thought.