Alumina - Jan-Mar 2007

Jaime Holzmann interviews Michael and Linda Falter

Whatever couples celebrating their silver weddings might have to share and treasure, Linda and Michael Falter enjoy something most do not: a business, Facsimile Editions Limited, they still co-run in London, with a trove of unique publications to their name. Among them are some of the most valued illuminated manuscripts Judaic scribes have created in the last millennium: the Kennicott Bible, the Rothschild Miscellany, the Alba Bible and the North French Miscellany.

All exist as facsimiles. All are painstakingly copied by the Falters from carefully guarded originals, and then sold in limited editions around the world to collectors and institutions: the plates are destroyed. All are exquisite and one, the Alba Bible, played a symbolic part in a political event.

In 1992, the first copy of the Bible printed by the Falters - the original, an Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, written in Castilian, dates from the mid-15th century - was given to King Juan Carlos during a ceremony in Madrid formally welcoming Jews back to Spain, five hundred years after an edict by his ancestors, Isabella and Ferdinand, expelled the race from the Peninsula.

The Falters met in Oxford, England, in 1980 and got married nine months later. Both had an interest in printing and the arts, but had notably different experiences.

Michael’s Jewish family had been in the printing business for three generations: his grandfather was a printers’ supplier in Prague; his father, a refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna, came to London in 1938 where some years later he started a printing-machinery company.

“Professionally, I was only ever really interested in printing,” says Michael. “I had my first press aged twelve, and embarked on my career by printing visiting-cards and playbills at school.” After a period working for Carlton, then as managing director for a UK software company, Michael was inspired to reproduce an illuminated manuscript.

“One afternoon, having seen a few manuscripts behind glass in the King’s Library in the British Museum, I thought, It’s such a pity that you can only see two pages on display - how much better if you could hold these books in your hands and turn the pages, especially if the copy exactly resembled the original, with fingermarks, foxing and wormholes all in place.”

Linda’s family were Jews from Russia and Poland: her father was the son of a baker, who arrived in England in 1910. Her mother’s family arrived from Russia in the 1880s.

Linda went to school in Switzerland. Before coming back to England to help sort out her brother’s skincare firm, she’d worked for the U.N. in Geneva and Tehran, and run a restaurant in Los Angeles. She’d also spent some time in Mexico with a cousin, who was working on Aztec codices.

“We travelled around Mexico for three months,” says Linda, “where my cousin had commissioned whole Zapotec villages to reproduce Aztec codices as large tapestries, which he then sold to major American institutions. I had never seen pre-Columbian manuscripts before and was fascinated.”

Her first interests were art and books, and she confesses she hadn’t heard the word “facsimile” before meeting Michael.

That changed when she saw the manuscript that was to become their first project: the Kennicott Bible. A lavishly illuminated book, it had lain in Oxford’s Bodleian Library since the 18th century and rarely been seen by anyone other than the most privileged scholars.

Originally from La Coruña in northern Spain and dated 1476,

the bible’s fortunes between the time of the Jews’ expulsion and its arrival in Oxford are a mystery. The only fact accompanying its re-entry into history is that a man named Patrick Chalmers walked into the Bodleian in 1771 and sold the book to the librarian, a Hebraist, Benjamin Kennicott.

The task of reproducing the bible was a labour of love. At first, the Bodleian turned the Falters’ request down: because it was such a massive project, Oxford University Press were thinking of reproducing it and the aspiring printers had no previous record of reproducing a manuscript.

“The Bodleian suggested we should start with a pamphlet!” Linda recalls. “We weren’t deterred. We borrowed money and used all our savings. We then had, amongst many other technical issues, the immense headache of finding the right printer.”

After months of travel in Europe, they came across Luigi Canton at a Milan firm called Grafiche Milani, a printer and bibliophile who regarded the Kennicott project as the supreme challenge of his printing career. While Grafiche Milani had never printed such a book before, they had an understanding of the type of paper such facsimiles require. It was an inspired meeting – Facsimile Editions have just celebrated their 25th anniversary, Grafiche Milani their 100th – and both are still working together in a spirit of close technical collaboration and friendship.

“At the time,” says Michael, “the biggest facsimile-makers were in Switzerland and Austria, but they printed only on coated paper. For the Kennicott, we knew we needed something that would have the unique transparency and feel of vellum, and this, therefore, had to be milled especially for us. Luigi and I discovered, quite independently as it happens, a mill in the Alps - they still supply our paper - but it took several months before the paper they developed was suitable for the complex task of printing twelve colours on both sides.”

“The text and the illumination on the verso of a facsimile page,” adds Linda, “should show through just slightly. It must not be smooth and it must not be rough.”

Most, though not all, of the manuscripts the Falters produce are replete with the finest gold illumination. In the Kennicott’s case, the only means available for achieving a finish comparable to the original was with a Swiss machine costing almost half a million dollars. Tests were carried out, but were unsatisfactory, so the Falters decided to lay down the gold in the way the first gilders had: by hand.

It took seven craftsmen four months to complete. The project as a whole took over five years. Twenty-one years on, a copy will set back a collector $7,700.

Since Kennicott, Facsimile Editions have produced close on ten books; along with the Rothschild Miscellany (an Italian collection of seventy Jewish works, dating from 1470) and the Alba Bible, facsimiles include the Barcelona Haggadah, the Parma Psalter and the North French Miscellany. Not all Facsimile Editions’ products are books exactly - one is just a fragment, from the Torah. Another, the Perek Shirah, is a thirty-four-page 18th-century Jewish manuscript from Moravia, a “cosmic hymn to the creator”, and has no gold.

Linda is emphatic that no original is the same.

“Every manuscript, every book, is a different entity. Some projects, such as the Barcelona Haggadah, were easier to complete not least because the original was close by, in the British Library.”

Most originals are abroad and Linda invariably has to travel to a manuscript in order to compare proofs against the original. There, she makes detailed changes and more proofs are made until they are as close to the original as possible. The proofs are always printed on the paper of the facsimile so that there will be no surprises when final printing takes place in Italy.

“The North French Miscellany and the Parma Psalter,” Linda continues, “were, we felt, particularly important because they were so early - both from 1280. With the Rothschild Miscellany, in tune with our principle of complete fidelity, we had the interesting task of pricking 92,000 holes into the edge of pages throughout the text. In the original, these had been made by the scribe with a stylus, as a way of keeping each line of text exactly horizontal.”

It is this kind of drive for authenticity that makes Facsimile Editions’ work unique. Subsequent to the Kennicott Bible, where the gold had to be laid flat - that’s how it is in the original - the Falters discovered a new technique.

“In many of these texts,” explains Linda, “the gold is slightly raised from the page. We are thus, as far as I know, the only people in the world using raised gold as opposed to embossing. In other words, we lay the gold onto a raised surface so that the finished book is virtually indistinguishable from the original.”

For colours, the process is almost agonising. The specialists in Milan create high-quality colour separations, using sophisticated digital technology that also allows adjustments by hand. Printed proofs using the separations are made on the paper or vellum that will be used in the facsimile. The Kennicott Bible used twelve-colour printing, but later books have tended to rely on nine-colour printing.

Linda stands at the press during the entire print-run. Michael calculated that she walked sixty-five kilometres during the production of the Alba Bible, hauling the first print from the press room to a nearby office where a large window allowed in natural light by which to check the accuracy of the colour. For some books, printing has taken so long that the couple have had to move to Milan for four months.

Their latest production is a new departure: a megillah, or scroll, containing the story of the Old Testament Book of Esther, which is read out loud in synagogues each February or March during Purim, a festival commemorating the deliverance of Jews from the sword of Xerxes in 5th-century BC Persia.

This particular objet is to be copied from a megillah made in Germany in around 1700, now the property of a private collector in Israel. Virtually every aspect of the Purim story - from hero to villain - is depicted in playful miniatures around the clear, square text. Unusually for a megillah, the text was written on to the vellum after the decoration had been applied. There is an abundance, too, of 18th-century costume and architecture in the illustrations. Moreover, for the second time only, the Falters are using real vellum: this is made in England, using centuries-old techniques which are still in use today.

A special challenge is the megillah’s container: a solid silver cylinder with a handle, rather resembling a rolling-pin. The original was fashioned in Vienna in 1824. The 295 being made by Facsimile Editions for their megillah have been entrusted to a Russian-born silversmith in Israel.

With each project, it seems, the Falters venture in undaunted. They’ve made their mark in Hebrew antiquities, unsurprisingly given their roots. Their innovative and microscopic techniques, producing items of genuine brilliance and scholarly consequence, suggest that new horizons will almost certainly have been broached by the time they reach their golden anniversary.

“We’ve spent twenty-five years,” says Michael, “building a reputation as a facsimile publisher with an uncompromising attitude towards quality and perfection. We now have the expertise and ability to reproduce any manuscript and are ready to add new and challenging manuscripts to our growing medieval library.”

Jaime Holzmann is a freelance writer living in London.