I guess all watercolour artists know about Fabriano paper! One of the most commonly used art papers in the world. I recently took part of the yearly big watercolour festival there, as coordinator for the Nordic countrie’s delegation.
Fabriano in Italy is regarded as the cradle of modern paper making, starting in the 13th century. Here the methods were much improved, new one’s invented. As an artist, historian and also handicrafty person, I find papermaking so very fascinating. I visited the museum in Fabriano, where I found some very interesting research, that luckily also was available in an English version. The work was masterfully done by Giuseppina Corinaldesi in the 1940’s. Photos are mine and taken in the museum.
Historical research uses mostly written evidence. The further back in time, the more scarce is the material to work from. People have simply thrown away. Fires, wars and other aggressive actions have made evidence disappear. Paper was also expensive, few could read and even fewer write, so it was mainly used for documenting important legal decisions. People did not write down what just went right and smooth, or to tell about jolly things in life!
Before paper, one wrote on parchment (writing sheets made of goatskin). It stayed along with paper for a long time, being the most important for legal writings and such, because it was mire safe. Paper quality was low and it could deteriorate quickly!
Mary Magdalena was the patron saint of the papermakers. Once in Fabriano, a very heavy press of wood fell down on one of the workers. Miraculously he was not injured at all! It was on the day of M.M., so naturally she was seen as the one who saved him.
Deckles on the wall, with different watermarks. The basin with the pulp dissolved in water. To the left a glimpse of the big impressive paper press of wood. Museum of papermaking, Fabriano.
Here is a very short paper history!
As far as one knows, paper making was invented in China around 100 B.C., but was kept a secret within the court for centuries. The paper was made from tree bark and hemp rags, pounded into pulp in large mortars, being a very tiring and slow way of working. A monk who knew the secret, came via Korea over the sea to Japan in early 600 A.C. Hundred years later paper is known to have been made in Samarkand. This was an intense market- and trading place, where of course also ideas and knowledge was passed on. Arabs took the craft with them along the northern African coast and over to Europe. They refined the method by using other materials for the pulp – no tree bark, but linnen and hemp rags in combo with mulberry bark. They standardized the method and also experimented with sizing (read more below). From the 13th century there is evidence of paper made the Arab way in Spain and Italy.
But – by the same time something new came up in Fabriano!
What was the new?
Mainly the use of water power to stamp the pulp, instead of beating it by hand (rather body). This made the process more quick, with less effort and resulting in a more homogenous pulp. In the mountain areas there were rivers and on these were everywhere mills for stamping wool into cloth. Such wool mills were very common all over Europe. Felting woolen fabric gave materials for making warm and waterprotecting cloths. I have once visited such an old mill in Sweden that is still in use.
In Fabriano it seems it all started with some people renting room in wool mills, for stamping and beating their paper pulp. The pulp was mainly linnen and hemp rags. New mills were soon built (well, ‘soon’ in medieval times, could mean some decades…), for the paper only. After some hundred years there were 170 paper mills around Fabriano, delivering pulp to some 15 papermaking workshops. Wow! Just imagine all these people being busy in the making of paper!
In Fabriano one started to use water power for beating the paper pulp. Here is an example of such a machine in the papermaking museum of Fabriano. This method is the cradle of modern papermaking.
Arrangement for making gelatin by boiling rests of skin from the tanneries nearby. This was another Fabriano invention, used for sizing the paper and still what is used in most watercolour papers from all brands.
Sizing is needed to create a surface on which ink and paints can stay and not just get quickly absorbed and dispersed into the paper sheet. It involves soaking the paper in different solutions.
In the start, the Chinese used a glue, made of some kind of lichen. The Arabs improved the sizing technique and used starch from rice and wheat instead. But these materials were from plants, making the papers appetizing for microorganisms. Remember that the houses in those days where not central heated and dry…
The Fabriano people started sizing paper with animal glue, gelatine, instead. That gave more longevity to paper, thus making it a more secure basis for documentation. People got hold of leftovers from the many tanneries in the area.
From the very beginning it seems that the Fabriano papers were made with watermarks. Starting with one or two letters or a simple symbol, showing who had made it. A way of marketing, really. Soon making watermarks became a more ornamental thing, real artworks. Making the watermark in a paper frame was a great skill! Still, the frames could not keep for long and were thus replaced, with new watermarks. The watermarks were mostly placed in the middle of the sheet or of the half part of the sheet. As a watercolour artist I am now happy it is just in two corners…
Beautiful handmade papers in Fabriano papermaking museum.
Deckel with watermarks, resting over the bassin with paper pulp, disolved in water.
Getting raw materials
People in historic times were eager to earn money from whatever and whenever they could. Many back then (as well as nowadays) earned their money from not doing any work at all, just controlling others… The crucial raw material for paper – rags of linnen and hemp – needed to be collected and traded. For the papermakers in Fabriano, the costs for buying this became the biggest expense. It practically set the prices of paper and finally the Pope intervened to give it proportions, so that paper actually could be produced and sold.
The production in Fabriano rather quickly mounted to impressive numbers. By the end of fourteenth century more than 9 million sheets were made yearly! Easy to understand, that the making of paper had become a wealth for the Fabriano area and also how they tried in all legal ways possible to protect their craft and trade.
The moneymaking of the business also made the many small mills from the beginning compete with each other and some bought up the losers, meaning, as it use to go, that it all ended up with some very few owning and controlling it all.
In Fabriano there is nowadays a big factory of course, but still, some artist papers are made by hand.