A brief history of paper

We are in China, is 105 AD and an official of the imperial court, a certain Ts'ai Lun, describes for the first time the production technique of one of the most used materials in the world: paper. The oldest known sheets of paper, however, date back to an even older period. In fact, hundreds of them have also been found in China in the tombs of imperial officials dating back to the second century BC. If at the time these sheets were already used as writing material it is not very clear, it is likely that they were used to create a commodity of greater necessity: the clothes.

In the fifth century AD, thanks to commercial relations with China, paper arrived in Central America (about 500 years before Europe!): We know for example that the Maya made extensive use of it. Gradually this strange and useful material spread around the world, but the production techniques remained a mystery for many peoples for a long time. The Arabs learned of it only in 751 AD and for a lucky occasion: after the capture of Samarkand they made prisoners some Chinese paper makers who were forced to reveal their art. The technique thus revealed was spread to Arab possessions in Europe (Spain and Sicily) and from there to the rest of the continent. We are around the year 1000.

The paper in Italy

La carta di AmalfiWe finally arrive in Italy. The first Italian paper mill was traditionally founded in Bologna by a certain Polese da Fabriano. However, he seems to be more of a legendary character. The first to know the secrets of paper would seem to have been the city of Amalfi. And no wonder! Amalfi, a maritime republic, played a leading role in the Mediterranean trade and was engaged in close commercial contacts with the whole of Asia.

Paper production thus began in Amalfi between the 12th and 13th centuries in the famous Valle dei Mulini (beautiful among other things for the natural landscape, perfect for suggestive excursions). The paper produced here was commonly called “carta bambagina”, perhaps from Latin bambax, cotton. In fact, the materials from which the production started were very simple cotton rags, unlike Asian paper, composed mainly through the treatment of wood. The product was immediately in great demand, so much so that it became fundamental for the local economy. From now on, the rags will be used as a basic material for paper production throughout Europe for at least another five hundred years. Practically until the Saxon weaver Friedrich Gottlob Keller invented a new and cheaper preparation process starting, as in the beginning, from the wood.

There charta bambagina

The production of Amalfi paper is still particular and prestigious today and resists despite having had to face various difficulties. Emperor Frederick II had even forbidden its use for notarial deeds (in fact he preferred parchment, which can last longer than paper). At the end of the 18th century there were at least twelve active Amalfi paper mills. In these years, however, there was a transition from hand to mechanized processing that required substantial investments, often impossible for families of paper makers. To resolve the crisis, the Bourbon government intervened with a protectionist policy. So much so that in 1861 the number of paper mills even tripled. In 1954, however, a violent flood destroyed most of the paper mills which have never been rebuilt since.

Today only three historic families of paper makers are active. In particular, the Milano family, after being forced to stop production in 1969, converted their paper mill into the characteristic Paper Museum, open since 1971 and absolutely worth visiting!


Claudia Grillo


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