The following is a guest post authored by Sharon Horowitz (Reference Librarian, Hebraic Section, African and Middle Eastern Division) and Gwenanne Edwards (Paper Conservator, Conservation Division).
The substance and context of this beautiful Jewish marriage contract (ketubah; pl. ketubot) from 1722, Ancona were detailed in a previous blog post. Now we highlight its recent conservation.
Although the illustrations are often beautiful, ketubah text is of chief importance. It spells out the obligations of the groom or his heir in case of the dissolution of the marriage or death of the husband. Accordingly, ketubot were among the earliest records to endow women with specific financial and legal rights .
Originally the Jewish wedding ceremony had two parts, Betrothal (Kiddushin) and Nuptials (Nesuin), with a year between the two ceremonies. Later, for practical reasons the two ceremonies were combined into one. A custom arose to read the ketubah aloud at the ceremony to demarcate between the two parts of the ceremony. A simple border was added to ensure the integrity of the text and prevent the addition of new stipulations or obligations.
Jewish immigrants to Italy from the Iberian Peninsula are thought to have started the custom of decorated ketubot. Frequent decorative styles included: architectural columns that symbolize the couple’s new home; love knots, which have no beginning or end; and zodiac symbols – stars and planets were thought to influence their lives. The Hebrew word for planet is “mazal” which is also the same word for “luck” used in good luck wishes.
Although the signature of witnesses appears after the text of the ketubah document, ketubah art was generally unsigned. In most cases we don’t know the names of the artist or the scribe.
Ancona was one of the most important centers of ketubah decoration in Italy from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The practice of commissioning large and lavish marriage contracts grew so popular, with families competing to outdo each other, that community rabbis issued an ordinance limiting the amount one was permitted to spend on a ketubah. Despite those limitations, we have before us a lovely example of an Italian decorated ketubah.
The ketubah is written in ink on parchment. The standard marriage contract is written in the center in black ink, while the tenaim, personalized betrothal conditions specific to the couple, are written just below, along with witness signatures, in brown ink. An elaborate naturalistic border painted with opaque watercolors surrounds the text.
Parchment, made by processing the skin of cows, goats, or sheep, has been used for millennia as a writing surface. After the introduction of paper to Europe, parchment was used less frequently, but continued to be favored in some areas for important documents like legal records and religious texts. Vellum is a term that is often used synonymously with parchment, but specifically refers to parchment made from calfskin. Further analysis would be needed to determine from which animal this parchment comes. The shape of this ketubah follows that of the animal, where the arch at the top indicates the neck of the animal.
Parchment is highly reactive to humidity. Fluctuations in humidity cause parchment to distort and undulate. The image below left shows the ketubah before conservation treatment in raking light, where the light is at a low angle to show the distortions in the parchment.
Humidity fluctuations can also cause instability of the ink and paint on the surface of parchment, resulting in cracking, lifting, and loss. This is due to parchment expanding and contracting differently than the paint and ink during changes in humidity. The image below right is a detail of the decorated border of the ketubah before conservation treatment, where the paint was cracked and lifting off the surface of the parchment, with small areas of paint loss.
In addition to these condition issues, there were areas of loss in the parchment itself that were surrounded by a large brown stain from previous water damage at the top of the ketubah, as well as papers attached to the back of the ketubah from a previous mount.
Conservation treatment of the ketubah was carried out by conservators in the Library’s Conservation Division. To ensure no additional paint was lost, a conservator consolidated lifting areas of paint to the parchment with a dilute adhesive applied with a small brush while working under a microscope. Areas where paint was already lost were not filled in with new paint – the goal of conservation treatment was not to make the ketubah look new; the aim was to stabilize it to prevent further damage.
Once the paint was secure, the ketubah could be safely turned over and worked on from the back. The conservator removed the attachments on the back, then addressed the small losses in the parchment. They were filled with strong, long-fibered papers of the same thickness to provide structural support. While the fills were toned to match the color of the parchment, no areas of paint were recreated.
Next came the trickiest step: reducing the distortions and undulations in the parchment. To do this the parchment had to first become more flexible by introducing moisture via slow, controlled humidification in a chamber. During humidification, the conservator closely monitored the parchment until it became relaxed but not so hydrated as to cause excess softening or bleeding of the paint or ink, or to cause translucency or alteration of the surface of the parchment.
To flatten, several conservators transferred the humidified ketubah to a suction table, which pulls an even suction across its surface. Working from the center of the ketubah outward, the conservators reduced distortions in the parchment while the table gently pulled the parchment flat. This required three conservators working simultaneously, so that it was done carefully but quickly before the parchment dried. The intention was not to make the ketubah perfectly flat, but to reduce distortions and improve the flexibility of the parchment for its safety while being handled and in storage.
Like other collections at the Library of Congress, the ketubah is stored in a controlled environment with a relatively stable temperature and humidity. Due to the particular sensitivity of parchment to small changes in humidity, additional precautions were taken when housing the ketubah for storage.
Paper strips were adhered along the back perimeter of the ketubah, then were laced through and adhered to a rigid back board. Perimeter hinging protects parchment during modest changes in humidity by providing slight, even tension and allowing a little movement. A window mat with a large opening allows all edges of the ketubah to be displayed, showing its unique shape, and protects the ketubah during handling and storage. The mounted ketubah is housed in a box for further support and security.
The conservation of the ketubah allows it to be safely displayed and studied, now and for many years in the future.
 Tahan, Ilana. Mazal tov ve-siman tov (Good luck and good sign): Jewish marriage contracts in the British Library’s Hebrew collection. British Library, African and Asian Studies Blog, 17 June 2019.