Lamberto Bernardini’s papermaking studio sits very near where Orvieto’s commanding cathedral casts its afternoon shadow. I came to meet with Lamberto and learn about traditional carta marmorizzata (marbled paper), but what I got in the bargain was a compelling narration of the history of paper from its ancient roots through its tragic introduction into Europe, to today’s resurgence of paper as an art form. Pestilence! Famine, Death! Who would have thought that paper, a seemingly benign product, would have such a notorious and illustrious past?
The Paper trail
Nearly 4,000 years ago the Egyptians discovered papyrus but by the 5th Century papyrus became scarce and parchment (made from calf skins) replaced it as a writing surface. Because parchment required killing livestock – an important food source for commoners – manuscripts became a rich man’s game only the noble and titled could afford to play.
By the 6th Century (105 A.D.), the Chinese began papermaking in earnest, keeping their secret under wraps until 751 A.D. when Muslim invaders seized a Chinese paper mill and the cat was out of the “paper” bag. Paper migrated to Spain and moved around the Mediterranean finding its way to Italy and was in full manufacturing mode by 1340. But it was in 1348 that a Genovese trading ship from China arrived at the port of Messina, Sicily bringing paper materials along with the bubonic plague. The “Black Death” spread rapidly throughout medieval Europe devastating nearly one-third of the continent’s population. Paper in Europe came at a gravely expensive price.
As the dark ages ebbed, the Renaissance was beginning to bloom and the revolutionary invention of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press in 1450 marked a time of great growth; an age of science, art and enlightenment. Paper could now be used to disseminate knowledge and information to the masses rather than be controlled primarily by the Church. European society would be changed forever.
(part II coming tomorrow…)
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Orvieto or Bust, Toni recently packed everything she owns into two suitcases and headed to Orvieto, Italy. She’s adjusted her tennis game to the clay courts and drinks way too many caffe lattes.