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On a quest to reveal the secrets of a 450-year-old censored book

December 14, 2018
Red Cyprian


Earle Havens, curator of rare books and manuscripts for the Sheridan Libraries, happened upon the volume on an antiquarian bookseller’s listings. The book—The Works of St. Cyprian, a third-century martyr, bishop of Carthage, and a father of early Christianity—is small but thick, with soft-worn and yellowed goatskin parchment covers. Its 19-page preface, written centuries later by the Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus, had been covered by haphazard slathers of red and black paint.

Havens immediately put in an offer. “I’ve certainly seen my share of expurgated books, books that have canceled lines, usually with ink,” he says. “But never anything quite on this scale of actually obliterating the text with a kind of opaque red paint.”

The curator sent his new purchase for repair of its loose pages to the libraries’ conservation lab, where it was seen by Patty McGuiggan, Heritage Science for Conservation laboratory’s principal investigator and an associate research professor in Materials Science and Engineering. She wondered what was beneath the layers. “And, of course, you can’t just wipe away or erase the paint because then it would not be special,” she says.

Now, thanks to a $100,000 Johns Hopkins Discovery Award, McGuiggan and her team—with backgrounds in not just conservation but big data analytics and astronomy—will use complex imaging processes and other methods to try to see beneath the paint.

“This is definitely something out of the ordinary from what I’d normally do,” says Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Alex Szalay, whose career has largely focused on measuring patterns in the distribution of galaxies. His expertise with big data and complex image processing will help the team examine numerous high-resolution images containing only slight variations between them.

Read the full story in the Winter 2018 issue of Johns Hopkins Magazine >>

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