Papermaking in Rome: How to Judge a Book by Its Cover
by Lisa Chambers
Did you ever wonder how that beautiful, decorative Italian paper is created? Every time I’m in Italy, stores displaying diaries, notebooks, or stationery with the eye-catching marbleized designs in a cornucopia of colors always grab my attention, and I’ve given more than a few address books covered in the stuff as gifts.
While marbleized paper rose to popularity in Turkey and Persia in the Middle Ages and spread across Europe in the 17th century as the bookbinding preferred by kings, what we see today in Italy primarily comes from Florence, where it’s still an artisanal craft.
A great place to catch a demonstration in Rome is in Il Papiro, a decorative paper and stationery store near the Pantheon (via del Pantheon, 50). The store is part of a Florentine chain that now has two locations in Rome and others across Italy.
If you drop by you may be treated to an impromptu demonstration of how the gorgeous designs are created and preserved on paper.
On the day I stopped by, one of the women in the shop offered to show us, step-by-step, how it’s done. And if you check the Il Papiro website, they even offer classes in Florence that teach the technique.
Tricks of the Paper Trade
First, a thick gel is poured into a rectangular container. “It’s like wallpaper glue,” explained the woman at Il Papiro.
Once the desired colors were resting on the glue’s surface, she took the end of a brush and ran it gently in a zigzag fashion through the glue (left) so that the colors were evenly spread in lines but not blended all together.
She wanted to show us different traditional patterns, so next she took a comb-like instrument and gently drew it across one portion of the paint (right).
Taking the pointy-end of a brush once more, she made some finishing touches to perfect the shell design.
Next, she carefully laid a piece of stiff parchment on top of the glue, and then oh-so-delicately dragged it along on top and out of the glue.
And eccola! It’s miraculous. (It takes about an hour for the paper to dry.)
According to A Brief History of Paper, by Neathery Batsell Fuller, the rich and powerful Fabriano family held a monopoly on papermaking in Italy, to the extent that fines of 50 ducats (about $225 in today’s dollars) were levied against those who tried to open factories within 50 miles of Fabriano buildings.
Italians (and Europeans in general) fell so in love with the colorful designs they not only began using them in bookbinding, but also in lining trunks and shelves, used it as wallpaper, and more. I’m keeping my Italian diary in an Italian paperbound notebook: No matter how illegible my handwriting or mundane the thoughts are inside—it’s all elegant and intriguing if you judge it solely by its cover