Of books and bookworms: How a Czech company is making authentic copies of rare historic manuscripts

Vyšehrad Codex

Tempus Libri is a Czech company specialising in the production of authentic copies or ‘clones’ of rare historic manuscripts, often of immense cultural value. To date, the most significant tome the firm copied is the Vyšehrad Codex, dating back to the Romanesque period. The manuscript, made up of one hundred and eight parchment folios – 26 of which are illuminated – focusses on numerous topics, including the genealogy of Christ. The Codex also depicts the first Czech King Vratislav II and features a reference to St. Wenceslas, the patron saint of Bohemia.

Tomáš Žilinčár,  photo: Czech Television
Faithfully copying rare and national treasures requires both state-of-the art technology and remarkable crafting skill in a number of different fields. Tempus Libri’s Tomáš Žilinčár told me more at Czech Radio recently.

“The most important step, once you have contracts and fees out of the way, is the exceptional digitalization of the manuscript. A moving robotic camera scans every single point on the page and a single page can take 40 minutes to map. The utmost care is needed and, in the case of the Vyšehrad Codex, maximum security.

“The Codex may not be the oldest book in the Czech lands but it is considered the most valuable, because it refers to the first Czech king to take the throne. It is, quite rightly, a national treasure. Not all manuscripts can be scanned, but digitalization in the case of the Codex was necessary. There was no other way a faithful clone of that particular book could have been completed.”

There are two specialised centres in the country where top-digitalisation takes place: one is the National Library, where extremely rare books are scanned and manuscripts never leave the building, remaining in perfect conservation conditions. The quality of the scan can then also be checked on the spot for any mistakes or imperfections. Tempus Libri often cooperates with institutions like the National Library to bring clones ‘to life’.

Vyšehrad Codex
“As a company, we want to publish manuscripts which are commercially interesting but it is often the case that we cooperate with existing institutions. Many of our orders for a particular manuscript come from the public sphere. These can be rare tomes, where the original is too valuable to study on a regular basis, so authentic copies are needed. The copy needs to be of the highest accuracy in terms of content and appearance.”

A great many steps to create the actual facsimile but once a perfect result is achieved, the manuscript must still be hand-bound and ‘aged’: every last detail must match, down to imperfections and damage a manuscript suffered over the centuries: stains or discoloration, worn, loose, or even torn-out pages, grooves or scratches on the binding. The idea is not to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes, just to make an identical copy. Tomáš Žilinčár again:

“Anyone handling the book perceives numerous aspects not just through sight, but also by feel. There can be no use of artificial materials: it has to feel authentic in the hands. We don’t want to trick anyone into thinking it is the original… it must still be visually convincing. There, digitalisation is crucial.

Vyšehrad Codex
“Physically, we then re-create each and every one of the book’s anomalies, whether it is in vellum or hand-made paper. If an original has several pages which are bored through by a grub, we have to recreate the bore through each page and the holes also have to line-up.”

And, another tricky aspect: pages are printed on white paper in order to get the proper colour balance but that means that the fore edge of the book is also glaring white, which has to be changed. Every single page edge has to be hand-painted to create a dirty or old-looking patina along the side. If you have a print-run of 200 copies, you can imagine the amount of work a single volume takes. The Czechs have a saying: mravenčí prace – an ant’s work. It is hard to think of a more painstaking profession. Tomáš Žilinčár says there are only a handful of people in the country who have the necessary qualifications. Many tasks are handled separately by different artisans: an especially majestic historic manuscript, for example, may have a heavy leather cover embedded with semi-precious gemstones or jewels.

“The requirements vary from book to book but most require work from a long list of specialists. Goldsmiths, engravers, gem cutters, needle workers, book binders and many others… like the tanner. A different kind of leather is needed if we are talking about the cover and about vellum. A great many professions are needed in the successful completion of a single manuscript.”

Each copy from a print run (which are kept relatively small for both financial reasons and to raise a product’s collector’s worth) has to be verified and receive certification of the highest order by independent experts across various fields. Each new release requires steady nerves Tomáš Žilinčár explains:

“Every single book we produce has a certificate of origin, stating the print run number and a clause that the book will never be reprinted by us. Then there is certification by academicians which states that the book is best copy possible of the original manuscript. We consult every single technical aspect every step of the way, so that by the time I take the book for final verification, I know it is the best it can be.

“Certainly there are nerves. Before the final attestation, I may have thrown away 50 samples which weren’t good enough. A specialist can always say ‘It’s good, but it could be better’ and that means going back and beginning again.”

It is not surprising, with the unparalleled level of expertise involved, hundreds of man hours, and general upfront costs, a single volume of a rare or historic manuscript sells from between 250,000 – 750,000 crowns by the time it hits the market. Who are the buyers, or in some cases, recipients? Tomáš Žilinčár again:

“Not all the books in a print run of 200 go up for sale. Quite a few are given away to charities, some are gifts for state occasions, visits by heads-of-state, or other key moments, and roughly 30 – 40 percent are sold abroad, and what remains after that is sold on the Czech market.

Kralice Bible,  photo: Jana Šustová
“State institutions such as libraries and so on often receive clones as gifts which they either keep and use for their own purposes or eventually auction off to help fund other projects. Others who buy our books are collectors who want something very unusual, something you can’t get just anywhere, someone who wants the very best. One example of a significant release we did recently was an authentic copy of the Kutná Hora Bible, in Czech.”

Tempus Libri's clients include top managers and company owners. Most recently, TV celebrity and talk show host Jan Kraus – the Czech Republic’s answer to David Letterman – received one of the firm’s tomes as a gift.