February 04, 2023
Sharper Image

Straining their eyes and blackening their fingers, Fabriano’s papermakers struggle to preserve a 13th century craft

By Renae Blum

Claudia Crocetti stands in a darkened room, beneath empty-looking white boxes in display cases on the walls. “We can’t do anything without light,” she mutters.

Then the lights in the ceiling snap on, and the ghostly boxes fill with warm yellow light, revealing hidden images in paper: the Virgin Mary, Mussolini, Botticelli’s Venus.

These are watermarks, some old and others new, the work of Italian filigranisti who create invisible designs on banknotes and official documents.

Fabriano, in Italy’s central Marche region, is the home of the watermark, an elaborate hidden design created by pressing a special screen to paper. Artisans here developed the technique in the 1200s, to protect their paper from imitators.

Fabriano artists also created the first waterproof paper, by developing and applying an animal gelatin. And they built the first hydraulic hammer mills to pulp paper, a relief to artists who before that were forced into the strenuous work of pulping with mortar and pestle.

Seven Years of Study

Downstairs, visitors watch master papermaker Micella Luigi and several students create this same watermarked paper using the methods of 13th century lavorente, or laborers. It’s a day like any other at the Museum of Paper and Watermarks (the Museo della Carta e della Filigrana) in Fabriano, a city known worldwide for its innovations in papermaking.

The traditional steps Luigi and his students follow look simple, but take apprentices six to seven years to master.

First, rags are placed in a series of hammer mills, noisy contraptions that pound the cloth into finer and finer pisto. The ground fiber goes into a vat of water. A lavorente stands above the vat, lifting a wire frame out of the dun-colored water. If one is creating watermarked paper, the frame will have a design sewn into it; the paper will form inside.

As the fiber settles, the papermaker swishes the frame back and forth, controlling the size and shape of the new paper. When he is finished, an assistant lays the wet sheet out on wool. The paper is about 80 percent to 99 percent water at this point, so a screw press is used to squeeze out excess water.

One begins to think of papermaking as gourmet cooking, or a bizarre science experiment. There are many ways to go wrong, many points in which timing, instinct and good judgment are crucial. You need the right temperature in the water. You need correct amounts of water, fiber and glue (and dye, if the paper is colored). You might smooth the paper incorrectly, or keep the hammer press going too long.

A true master, Luigi says, can create a set of paper in which every sheet is identical.

Followed by Heavy Work and Low Pay

The watermarks Crocetti is showing here are among the world’s best. The images in these rooms reflect not ridges of steel in a mesh frame, but human skin and hair, draped cloth, the sun gleaming on a metal helmet.

Some sheets are elaborate calendars, all 12 months on a single page, with perfectly symmetrical vines, flowers and heraldic symbols wrapping around each month.

Reaching this level of expertise exacts a price that not everyone is willing to pay. Sometimes it’s physical. The filigranisti who create these intricate designs often “have big glasses,” Crocetti, a tour guide for the museum, explained.

Staring at the wire mesh and tiny holes, they must sew steel thread through their damaged vision.

Some paper makers also have blackened fingertips from dipping paper into hot water all day.

“They shed skin like a snake,” Crocetti said.

The most common barriers to becoming a maestro of papermaking like Luigi are lack of time and lack of money. During the years of learning, students work as apprentices for little to no pay. A full-time papermaker can earn perhaps $1,500 a month.

“Young people don’t want to learn, because work requires a sacrifice,” Luigi said.

He picked up the trade himself “very gradually,” from an elderly maestro years ago.

He hopes his own son, currently attending a technical institute for papermaking, will continue his work. But papermaking is traditionally a very secretive art.

“He likes to teach to his son, but doesn’t like to teach to all,” Crocetti said, laughing. “They (the papermakers) are very jealous. It’s difficult for them to show tourists all the secrets.”

Indeed: if you lived within 50 miles of Fabriano in the 1430s, you faced a fine of 50 ducats - roughly the price of a very desirable slave - if you made paper without permission, or taught that skill to an unauthorized person. You could also be fined for not teaching the right person. Local mastro Piero di Stefano, for example, faced a 100 ducat fine if he failed to pass on his craft to a son or apprentice, or taught it to anyone else.

Then, Machines Take Your Job

Today, most paper is produced mechanically. Watermarks embedded in paper money are created by computers, not filigranisti meticulously hand-sewing the pattern on a wire mesh.

Luigi doesn’t mind the technological advances. It’s quicker, but can’t touch the quality of handmade paper, he says.

“Here, there is a niche for people who want personalized paper,” he says. He regularly fills orders for wedding invitations, personal stationary, even watermarked paper with designs the customer created. And he’ll knock down the price, for good friends.

The rewards of such work — physically taxing and unglamorous as it is — are small, but special.

“I like my work very much because after I pull the material out of the water, it feels like woven cloth,” Luigi said. “It feels like touching cotton.”

Where to Buy Fabriano Paper
Fabriano’s famous watermarked paper is widely available, at prices ranging from a few dollars to over $100. The Museum of Paper and Watermarks offers specialty products both in its gift shop and online, often at quite reasonable prices. Recently five sheets of handmade paper with envelopes, decorated with flower petals, were on sale for about $5; large sheets of 11″ x 18″ watermarked paper sold for $2.25 each. In the United States, the Illinois-based Blick Art Materials sells many Fabriano papers, as does the Milan-based Fabriano Boutique, which maintains shops in Europe, Japan and the United States.

This article was adapted from the 2010-2011 edition of Urbino Now, an annual magazine by ieiMedia journalism students that circulates in Italy’s Le Marche region.

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