Just letter C as cordovans


Sometimes we have to go back to have a sense of understanding all before we can go forward.


Today I prepare for you, my personal dig in the conservation treatment of the leather gilding-cordovans. Decorative patterns formed by someone in the past. The leather is the most important layer of these objects. The quality of skin their type, methods of processing and leather changes with time and participation of the environmental factors determining the state of the preservation of gilt leathers as well as the possibility of their functioning as wall covering, the altars frontal decorations and other. The ideal material for the manufacture of gilt and embossed leathers was calfskin. Calfskins were tanned with oak bark extract with the addition of sumac. Purchase from tanner the leathers was improved by soaking in water, beating to soften and stretching etc. Do you know how was it decorated? Do you remember? Take the walk with me and see them once again.

Artwork designed by bridgemanimages. Made by Zazzle Paper in San Jose, CA. Sold by Zazzle. The name of the decorative leather “cordovan” is linked to Spanish city Cordoba. The city in southern Spain where the technique of tanning this leather originated. The Arabs introduced leatherworking to Cordoba in the 8th century. Even today high volume production and fancy technology are powerless in its manufacture. The city is famous for its leatherwork, and its most historic technique, guadameci, is an intricate embossed design with gold, silver and coloured paint, unique to Cordoba, which dates back to the 10th century. Today these breathtaking works of art are crafted by modern guadameci such as Ramon Garcia Romero, who dedicated over 40 years to research and replication of this hand-craft of Spain. These particular works are housed in a museum in Cordoba Spain here’s a link to the museum. It is so hard to imagine that in today’s world there are people with such a dedication to craftsmanship.


Interior of the Mosque at Cordoba” by Edwin Lord Weeks https://lordpoint.wordpress.com/2013/12/12/shell-cordovan/

Maria im Ährenkleid 1490

Maria im Ährenkleid 1490 (please see cordovan in the background )

In the middle ages, the painted leathers or fabric were hung in residential interiors. Princes and other great personages depended largely on decorated leather and tapestries, when moving from place to place, to supplement the often hastily improvised decoration of their temporary apartments.   After consulting various books on the subject, I believe, as already stated, that its introduction into Spain may be attributed to the Moorish conquerors about the eighth century. In an Arabian manuscript of the sixth century of the Mohammedan era, mention is made of the industry as flourishing in the town of Ghadames in the Sahara. Jehan de Garlande, the author of a Latin dictionary composed in 1080, mentions Cordouans first manufactured at Cordova in the eleventh century. About the same time, the Monk Theophilus, in his curious encyclopædia of the arts, which unfortunately has not come down to us in its complete form, gives the following description of the processes of gilding leather: “

For laying on gold or silver, take the clear liquid of white of egg beaten up without water; paint some with a brush over the part which is to receive the gold or silver. Damping the end of the same brush in your mouth, bring it in contact with a corner of the cut leaf (of gold or silver). Then lifting it with extreme rapidity, you lay it on the prepared place and spread it with a dry brush. At this point you must take precautions against a draught, you must hold your breath for if you breathe you will lose the leaf and find difficulty in recovering it. When in position and dry you may, if you wish, put a second over it in the same way, and then a81 third, if it is wanted, so as to be able to give a more brilliant polish with a burnished.You can, if you wish, apply the leaf on a ceiling or a wall; in the same manner, over a lining of tinfoil. If you have neither gold nor silver, you will use tinfoil, which you will apply thus….” (Theophili Presbyteri et Monachi, Libri 3 seu Diversarum artium schedula. Chapter 24.) The oldest written source of the gilding leather are descriptions of padre Manson from 1515, were several chapters are devoted to leathers. Two future descriptions were drawn up by the  Italians Leonardo Fioravanti from 1567 and   Gerzoni Thomas, also from the second half of the sixteen century. As I have already mentioned, the “Cordoban” (Cordovan leather) is made from tanned calfskins however on the first historically goat’s hides (from either bucks or does), of high-quality and usually tanned using sumac. Sumac is a plant that produces much higher quality leather than those produced using other tanning plants, such as oak or pine bark. Its perfect combination of flexibility, suppleness, strength, and durability has made it a highly-prized type of leather which is used for making a wide variety of items. Do you know this tree? Tanin in the leaves can be used to tan leather. All parts of this plant are a natural dye. The red berries are covered with hairs and malic acid. The acid will wash off under warm water. Sumac tea can be made with seeds and boiling water but must be used soon or it becomes bitter because of the tannin. The early Indian tribes used the leaves and stems to extend their tobacco. They also used it to treat diarrhea and fevers. If you happen to find the poison sumac- its seeds can be used for a black varnish. It is easy to make sumac jelly . Take three cups of sugar and 4-5 juice -mix with unflavored gelatin and follow the directions on the gelatin package. It will also make a type of candy. Use one cup of sumac juice ( use a coffee filter to remove the seeds) after soaking berries in warm water. Add two envelopes of gelatin and mix. Pour into an eight- by eight-inch pan and put into the fridge to harden. If you visit a museum ,you are sometimes offered a glass of sumac ade. Soak berries in warm water and filter out the berries to get juice. Add sugar if needed. If not a nice pink colour- add a bit of food colouring. Using any of these recipes, you need to remember to soak the seeds for about 30 minutes then filter- never used boiling water or you get tannin. As a child, I remember making sumac ink to use with a pen with a nib. The result was a bit faint – but a fun thing for children to do.


I’m sure you know this plant with


Mendel_II_077_r “Tanner”

Backing to medieval times, “Cordobanes” have been also used for lining caskets, trunks, chests, and cases and for manufacturing luxury shoes and gloves.
Despite their main functional purpose, Cordobanes” were often ornamented and decorated with painted motifs, embossed or engraved with incisions or openwork, all of which enhanced their luxury value. Cordoba was the first and foremost manufacturing centre for this type of leather, although production quickly spread throughout the peninsula, and soon all leather items with these characteristics were known as “Cordobanes”, even if they were not actually made in this city.
In Hispano-Arabic Cordoba, the “Cordobanes” were created after the introduction of Arabic tanning techniques and the exploitation of its unrivaled natural resources of goatskin and sumac. Soon “Cordobanes” achieved widespread fame and popularity, and were exported to Western Europe and the Spanish colonies of America.
Due to their huge export market, a number of laws were passed to limit foreign trade, in order to avoid shortages and price increases in the markets of mainland Spain. Cordoba leather is crimped, modelled or embossed by pressing the wet leather on to a hot bronze or wooden plate with the pattern engraved into it, or by working the leather from both the back and the front with a punch or spatula. Then the piece is gilded or silvered, painted and the background usually stained red or red-brown. The literature study shows that the first whole surface of a piece of leather is covered with a thin layer of egg white or fish glue. The gelatine thick was used as jelly, in two layers; the second layer can be applied after the first layer is completely dry. Next, normally, silver leaf, measuring 88 x 88 millimeters, was used, but also zinc leaf and sometimes tin leaf has been mentioned. The gold leaf was not used, because it is too expensive. The disadvantage of zinc leaf and tin leaf is that the beautiful golden gloss is lost within two or three years, and the colour turns to green. Some authors mentioned that copper leaf was used.  Alloys as ‘similor’ and ‘tombak’ could also be used, as they oxidize less rapidly, but they are more difficult to press. “Similor” is a copper alloy with a golden colour and has fantasy names like similgold, Mannheimergold, schijngoud, semilor, spinsbek and pinsbek. Tombak is an alloy of copper and zinc (red brass) with less than 18% of zinc. Between 12 and 18% of zinc, this alloy has a beautiful reddish golden colour.

As good as gold ” 🙂

4 After pressing the relief, the decorations were painted with opaque and transparent pigments and dyes. Some authors tells us that the pigments were mixed with oil and turpentine. To let the oil dry quicker, burnt umber or red lead (minium) was added. The painters (artists) just simply used the pigments available in their time. 345066944I would like to dig more. I am backing to 17 century, it’s at 5th February 1663 and the best time for cordovans. It’s a time that the painted leathers were hung in residential interiors and many single curtains, hung on the pins recessed in the wall. In January 1663 members of the company and Saharias Derdo William de Svart of The Hague have applied to the magistrate for non-smoking coal near your home or immediate vicinity, since the use coal for heating, cause that they become black. Magistrate turned out to be favorable for the company producing gilding leather and at 5 the February 1663  introduced this ban.

Over the centuries, this manufacturing technique gradually evolved in line with the changing trends in the world of the arts, industry, and trade in Europe. From the 17th to the 19th century the most highly renowned and productive leather manufacturing workshops were to be found in Flanders (mainly at Lille, Brussels, Antwerp, and Mechelen). They brought together the most spectacular techniques, their quality surpassing that of Spain where production had collapsed. Moreover, many embossed motifs are evocative of the 17th-century Flemish style at its richest and most luxuriant. Cordoba leathers were reserved for a relatively restricted application in the antechambers or dining rooms of luxurious secondary residences. Industrialization and the new fashions that appeared at the end of the 18th century with the discovery of new techniques in the world of textiles and wallpaper (more varied designs and colours) caused Cordoba leather to be slowly forgotten. I hope you find these works as inspirational. Industrialization and the new fashions that appeared at the end of the 18th century with the discovery of new techniques in the world of textiles and wallpaper (more varied designs and colours) caused Cordoba leather to be slowly forgotten. I hope you like them.

P1560034 I’ve found something that I enjoy during the conservation of gilding leathers. Firstly, treatment is not that easy and removing of lining materials backing and old mending and repairs applied in the past are not always simple procedures. Often it is necessary to soften the old adhesive. Personally, I used the dense carboxy or methylcellulose with the addition of ox gall and also 4-6 % Klucel. In my practice, I used for removal of deformation aqueous solution of buffer and re-tanning solutions containing Sumac in the mixture of water and isopropanol alcohol 1:1 and of lubrication. Lubrication is a very often discussed problem in the conservation of leather. I recommend slight lubrication. Please remember that the ideas of using lubrication are: improving physical and mechanical properties of leather, creating barriers against pollutants, improving appearance. The objections to lubrication are an unacceptable change of appearance (especially of the very degraded or light leather), support of the microbiological attack, forming of spews on the surface, oxidation of fat and stiffening, softening original decoration and discoloration, collecting dust and so on. The decision is yours.

Something the most intriguing essential luxuries, I learned from my project and was not only that the leather changes with time and participation of the environmental factors determining the state of the preservation of gilt leathers as well as the possibility of their functioning as wall covering.


 I learned the history of cordovans.

I learned that preparatory steps are necessary for all projects.

They are also necessary for life if we want to live authentically. Every twenty-four hours we are given a fresh canvas to prime, to make ready for the vision. All these preparatory steps we need to take if we wish to experience contentment. Today, don’t rush through your inner preparations as you get ready to set down a piece of your soul on life’s canvas.




About conservationwithella

Hello, I'm Ella, Art on Paper Conservator & Preservation Manager at Glasgow University Archives and Special Collections. This blog is a walk through my daily life, work, arts & crafts history, my discovery that everything in my life is enough to be a continuous source of reflection. I started blogging to entertain myself but I hope you enjoy it too. I'm sure you agree, that Life without art is nothing. :)

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