The Story of Paper

May 14, 2012 / Local Interest
Orvieto, Umbria
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…)

Toni DeBella

by Toni DeBella

A Freelance writer and blogger at 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. 

25 Responses to “The Story of Paper”

  1. Love it – I used to make hand-made ‘recycled’ paper envelopes and writing paper. Brings back memories. Will look forwad to the next installment – I am quite glad vellum is no longer used!!

    Reply
  2. Toni
    I just met Lamberto a few months ago and he invited me to watch his papermaking. I have yet to call him and take him up on the offer but after reading your story on the Italian Notebook..I will do that soon. Great article and great shops.

    Reply
  3. Toni DeBella

    Ingrid, Hey you are a women of many talents…cooking, crafts writing, renovating houses in Italy. The list goes on! Thanks for stopping by IN. Hugs. T

    Reply
  4. Marbled paper! I would so love to see this… and also how he makes it. Thanks for the lush history.

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    • Toni DeBella

      Hi Barbara, I am assuming you caught part II with the video by now. Thanks for reading. Hope you enjoyed seeing Lamberto’s tour and demo. He is great! Toni

      Reply
  5. Jemma

    wow! who would have thought ‘paper’ to have such an interesting birth!

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    • Toni DeBella

      Jemma, I know! After talking to him for five minutes I was completely enthralled. Lamberto has a way of drawing you into the history of paper because he is so passionate about it! Toni

      Reply
  6. Angela

    I would love to see how he marbleizes paper. I know I can probably find a you tube instruction, but nothing like seeing it done by a master. I look forward to seeing part two.

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    • Toni DeBella

      Angela, I waited to answer your question after you saw part II and the video. Hope you enjoyed it. Steve, the filmmaker, did a beautiful job and I think seeing the video is “almost” like being there…but not quite. Thanks.

      Reply
  7. Kathi

    Here’s what I’m wondering – how can they know that it was a specific ship and a specific port that brought the Black Plague? They didn’t have our modern scientific methods and technology to track this kind of thing.

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  8. Hello Toni, I also loved this story. My husband and I are setting up a small tour company, taking small groups around Tuscany and Umbria. We would love to incorporate this into our visit to Orvieto. Is it possible for you to email me or me to contact you?

    Reply
  9. Now we HAVE to go to Orviato to see Lamberto’s studio and enjoyed the history lesson. Just to add a bit, the printing press also allowed the Bible to be affordable and so started the Protestant movement. As now the common person could read the Bible for themselves.

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    • Toni DeBella

      Yes, paper and the printing press were yesterday’s world-wide web….knowledge and information was now available and people could begin to form opinions for themselves. Today we take our intellectual freedoms for granted, no? Thanks for that Mack. Toni

      Reply
  10. Pam Horvath

    I just meet Lamberto last month in Orvieto, along with my friends while looking for a place to have lunch. Lamberto was kind enough to suggest a friends place, Antica Cantina. We had a wonderful meal. Had no idea he was a paper maker – now we must all return and visit his shop!

    Reply

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