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December 01, 2022 1 Comment
Last year I was invited to contribute to a top secret project to bring an entire Roman villa to life. When ruins of a Roman household were found on the estate of The Newt in Somerset - the former Hadspen House - the owners embarked on an ambitious project to design, build, decorate and furnish a complete reproduction late Roman Britain home and garden right next to the ruins.
The entrance to Villa Ventorum
A huge team of craftspeople, artists, historians, architects and designers brought Villa Ventorum to life. I was commissioned to design and make 12 limp leather books and several scroll fastenings.
You can see my books and scroll fastenings in the study, the tutor's room and also the bedroom (look on top of the wardrobe!).
The bedroom with fine furniture, linens and books.
The leather books represent a significant turning point in the history of written records. Really, they're a testament to the ingenuity of the Roman period. The Romans innovated the codex (the forerunner of the modern book form) out of the wax tablet and, proving so useful, the codex gradually replaced the more cumbersome scroll.
Szirmai's reference book, The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding, was an invaluable resource to me for this project, as with so many others. I based my designs on the research Szirmai presents on the early codex, fragments and examples of which have been found dating back to the second to fourth century AD.
The Archaeology of Medieval Bookbinding
I was commissioned to make 4 books in different colour combinations, in 3 sizes, with each size having a different closing flap design. I chose a triangular envelope style flap for the larger size, as seen in the Nag Hammadi bindings. A vertical design worked for the smaller size, and I elected to retain the natural edge of the leather on the slimmer, small size.
Although their design was necessarily simplified and somewhat imagined, I retained the key defining features of the earliest books: pages bound to a limp leather cover with a protective envelope flap and a leather wrapping band fasted with a simple stitch.
Mustard Yellow leather books; the smallest retains the leather's raw edge
The Villa's books are bound in fine calfskin, linen thread and parchment effect paper. The Newt chose some wonderful colour combinations to complement Villa Ventorum's interior design. Below you can see some of them: Mustard Yellow with Rust stitching, Oxblood leather with Chocolate, Forest Green covers with Maroon thread, and Maroon leather with Green stitching. I made the scroll fastenings in matching leathers, to The Newt's design.
Inspiring colour combinations
When I delivered my books to their warehouse, before the Villa was completed, I was absolutely gobsmacked at the ambition of the project and the lengths the design team had gone to to source the highest quality, individually hand crafted, items to fill the Villa. Finely crafted cabinets, beds, chairs with leaping dolphins for arms, tiny jars and clay wick burners, wax tablets, linens, baskets, jewellery... I could go on.
For the first time in my 13 years as a bookbinder, I felt like my work REALLY fitted in with its surroundings. Well, that experience was nothing compared to visiting Villa Ventorum for the first time. It is truly exquisite!
The lady of the house was fond of writing.
It's a wonderful place to visit, whether you're a lover of fine craftsmanship, have an interest in architecture, archaeology, interiors or gardens or would just like a beautiful place to unwind next time you're in the West Country.
As well as the Villa itself, there is a museum with interative elements, artefacts found at the site and examples of household items used in the late Roman period. An audio tour guides you through the Villa and there's even a Virtual Reality experience to round off your visit.
A beautifully designed and decorated villa that is testament to contemporary British craftsmanship as well as the late Roman Britain period.
There are numerous garden attractions on The Newt's estate, including the Beezantium, a sort of temple to bees, a beautifully designed garden including a parabola of numerous apple varieties and a grotto, to name but a view.
And centered around an open fire pit, there's an incredibly well-stocked farm shop with produce from the estate and local suppliers, a very inviting home and garden store, and plenty of choice food and drink and places to enjoy them. My favourite is the winter garden, a warm and inviting glasshouse filled with plants. For nature lovers, various seasonal garden tours, workshops and activities are available to book.
If you can't make it down to Somerset, I hope I've gone some way to bringing Villa Ventorum to life for you in this blog post. For more information about the leather books, please feel free to get in touch with me.Susan
+44 (0)7748 759371
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